'Went in with reverence, never held back what we wanted to express': Ray directors, cast on adapting Satyajit Ray's works
Directors Srijit Mukherji and Vasan Bala, and actors Kay Kay Menon, Harshvardhan Kapoor, and Akansha Ranjan Kapoor open up about their fears of adapting well-known texts, humanising their characters, and how they married style and substance.
Ray, Netflix India's upcoming Original anthology series, is filmmaker Srijit Mukherji, Vasan Bala, and Abhishek Chaubey's ode to the legendary auteur's short stories. Created by Sayantan Mukherjee, the episodic limited series reimagines four of Satyajit Ray's stories — Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram, Bahurupi, Bipin Chowdhury'r Smritibhrom, and Spotlight.
Ahead of the debut of the show, directors Srijit Mukherji and Vasan Bala, and actors Kay Kay Menon, Harshvardhan Kapoor, and Akansha Ranjan Kapoor open up on their fears of adapting a well-known text, humanising their characters, and how they married style and substance.
Director Srijit Mukherji, who has directed two — Bahrupiya and Forget Me Not — of the four segments in Ray, says while he has adapted classics in the past, with Shah Jahan Regency, Autograph, and Ek Je Chilo Raja, any reenvisioning enterprise on Ray is both "different and difficult."
"The total reimagining of the context, or even introducing changes to the story is risky. It might not only alienate, but also anger Ray purists. However, a lot of that happened when Visva Bharati lost its sole copyright to (Rabindranath) Tagore's works, which also led to some fascinating experimentation with Rabindra Sangeet. To quote Tagore himself, "Even if the path for something new is strewn with thorns, it's the only path for its salvation or evolution". If you venture out, there will most definitely be opposition, but if you are honest and distil the spirit of the story, a change in context, backdrop or the culmination of the story doesn't really matter."
"In fact, Ray himself does that with Nastanirh [Tagore's novella that was the basis of Ray's film Charulata] and Pather Panchali [Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's 1929 Bengali novel that Ray adapted for his National Award-winning 1955 movie of the same name]", the director adds.
Vasan Bala, the director of Spotlight, echoes Mukherji's sentiments. He says while there is always fear associated with retelling Ray, "every filmmaker should be courageous enough to own their material."
"There was excitement to be part of the legacy, as well as the challenge to at least save face. We went in with all hard work and reverence, but never held back on what we wanted to express. So there wasn't much hesitation in relation to the repercussions of the show," the filmmaker adds.
Although based on Ray, Bala's unique filmmaker's voice, where he effortlessly blends style and substance, takes centre stage in Spotlight.
"If you look at Nayak and Pratidwandi, there are beautiful, striking images of Uttam Kumar or Dhritiman Chatterjee wearing sunglasses, walking down the streets of Kolkata. Style is captivating. Besides, the fun in cinema is to use the tools of music, production design, and costumes. When it all comes together, it is almost like watching a satisfying magic trick. Spotlight needed to be fantastical, and the hotel we shot as had that aura of fantasy. Otherwise, we have taken Ray's stories as the blueprint for our film, and it itself lends it gravitas. Hence, even when stylised, the narrative itself is grounded in reality."
Bahrupiya, on the other hand, is a ruminative piece on the concept of style and masking itself. Menon plays a down-on-luck middle-aged bloke whose life turns upside down after his grandmother passes on her most prized possession, a diary of all her recipes and instructions to create prosthetics and makeup. Menon says it was a "complex" role that was also physically demanding.
"Not only wearing the prosthetics, it was a role that required me to understand the mechanics of it all, like sweating under it, and also extend that prosthetics to the body language and the voice of the character. But when something is as interesting to work on, the arduousness just melts away," Menon says.
However, he also firmly believes in humanising his characters, how much ever prosthetic makeup they may be wearing, or how morally ambiguous they might be. "More often than not, we tend to forget that we are playing a person, and there isn't one person in the world who doesn't think they are justified in their actions. The moment you start playing the character like he believes in their actions, they would transcend their "villain-ness" to become a flesh-and-blood character. As an actor, one needs to be careful about not letting their personal biases impact the story," he asserts.
In Spotlight, Harshvardhan Kapoor essays the role of a fading star, a character he admits was far removed from his person. "Vikram Arora (Harshvardhan's character) comes from a simple background who shot to superstardom with his single-screen, massy movies. My path has been a little different where I started with doing unconventional movies. So I have never experienced fame, craze, and stardom. To step into his shoes, I had to understand him within the film's context and create a backstory with Vasan," Kapoor shares.
The film came to Harshvardhan during the first wave of COVID-19. "At the time, I had not had a release in a while. I had shot for AK vs AK, but I wasn't sure when the movie would get to see the light of day. I was also worried about when the vaccine would arrive or we would move forward as a race. So there was a lot of anxiety and second-guessing that I too was going through. With Spotlight, I used this film as a vehicle to channel this nervous energy."
Speaking about her character, Akansha reveals a lot of her scenes with Harshvardhan were improvised. Referring to a dramatically charged scene in Spotlight, she says she was "aware of the scene's core and the characters' emotional destinations, but everything else was improvised. We were reacting to each other a lot, and relied quite a bit on our instincts."
Harshvardhan's costumes also lent a peek into his character's personality. The jacket that he is seen wearing in the opening shot is one that has been worn by Justin Bieber, Elle Fanning, and Keith Urban. "Vikram is someone who is extremely conscious of how he is perceived by society. To emit confidence, he wears garments that have been worn by great artists in the past. Hence, his costumes become a narrative tool itself," says Harshvardhan.
Since Spotlight is a film about films, one may find umpteen metatheatrical references peppered throughout the movie, be it Harshvardhan's tee-shirts featuring Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese, both of whom are themselves influenced by Ray's filmmaking. Bala calls it "the garnishing" that is usually done after the shooting is over. "Those who identify these references, it's fun for them. But even if you don't, it does not really interfere with the viewing experience," Bala signs off.
Ray will premiere on Netflix India this Friday on 25 June.
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