Ray is an anthology inspired by four short stories written by Satyajit Ray. Directors Srijit Mukherji, Abhishek Chaubey, Vasan Bala, showrunner Sayantan Mukherjee and producer Ajit Andhare talk about the making. They also met the first viewers of the series on Dial M For Films. The series is now streaming on Netflix.
This conversation was recorded on the 21st of June 2021.
Smriti Kiran: Anthologies are fairly new to Hindi cinema. Sirikkadhey, a 1939 Tamil film, is widely recognised as the first anthology film in India. Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya in 1961 based on Rabindranath Tagore’s stories is considered an anthology. But it was only post-2000 that Indian cinema, especially Hindi cinema, started experimenting a lot more with this format. What kind of creative opportunity does working on an anthology offer a filmmaker? And are they viable options beyond OTT platforms?
Srijit Mukherji: For me, storytelling is of paramount importance. So, in an anthology, I would like to look at it from the perspective of the story I’m making. But more than the filmmakers, I think Sayantan was the person over here who ties these stories together and presents them. I think for him, it’s a very important thing to have different voices while storytelling. And an anthology does exactly that. It gives you a spectrum of aesthetics, perspectives, takes, and styles. The growing up of the different voices, their backgrounds, their socio-cultural, their linguistic speciality is different. Essentially, capturing versatility on a spectrum is what an anthology gives to the person who’s putting it all together. For us, for example, on Ray, we were concentrating on our films, our stories and our adaptations or inspirations. The person who was tying it together was actually having more fun in terms of having a macro overview of things.
Smriti Kiran: Sayantan, were you having fun?
Sayantan Mukherjee: Oh, yeah, definitely I was. As Srijit mentioned, you get to have an overall macro view of the whole thing. And you get to make four films, sometimes six films, so it’s very effective because you get to see so many different ways of making cinema. That just really excites you. Especially here because when we’re working with three directors, their style is so different from each other, the way they function is so different. What they have made is also so different. That is such a beautiful experience. At the same time, you get to have this macro understanding of what the show means overall, how you can get them together and somehow bring it together. So we are just having that macro perspective, and at the same time getting to see four different ways of making films and also four different films. So, it’s a lot of fun for anybody who is making it.
Abhishek Chaubey: For me, as a filmmaker, the opportunity really was to do a short film. We as filmmakers are primarily bound by the two or two and a half-hour structure, and then no matter what you do, the length of the film dictates how it flows. But now things are opening up and I think short films are getting a lot of views. We also, on the other hand, have long-format in series. So as filmmakers, we are at a very fortunate time, where we got the opposite. We needed to experiment with other kinds of structures and it was not possible. So for me, it’s just that. I’d love to be a part of the anthology to make more shorts. As anthologies, they’re marketable and releasable rather than just being one short.
Smriti Kiran: You spoke about locations and how because we are in the middle of a pandemic they are not available. And for this short, it was the first time that you had to erect sets. What was that experience like?
Abhishek Chaubey: I would say that we actually made the best of a tough situation because shooting on set was a foregone conclusion. We could not really take a train from Bhopal to Delhi and shoot as we like. But as we were prepping for that during the pandemic, we actually then used the set in a way that solves a lot of narrative problems. The original short story is written almost like a first-person account so most of the story is inside his head. So we used the set to our advantage to tell the story and to do some magical stuff, which was possible only on set. Had we done it in a real location, we would have been stuck. So in that regard, it was a lot of fun. I’m not sure if I will do it again. But yeah, this experience was very rewarding, for sure.
Vasan Bala: This was a very clear, selfish motive. I just want to be a part of it. Whether it made sense or not didn’t matter. But then the good thing is that it’s under the Ray umbrella. Anyway, you’re on the edge because recreating or re-imagining him is digging your own grave. The only way out is to just go crazy and do your own thing. In that sense, it was very liberating to start with, and with Sayantan I think we all found that partner. We were all on that similar page. All the dramatics and how it comes together and all the communication that he will handle. We can make our own films. The experience of going ahead, with the base material and running with it was amazing.
Smriti Kiran: Satyajit Ray put India on the global film map. His place in the cinematic landscape is reverential. Sometimes this legacy also makes him inaccessible by perception to his potential audience. Something that he, as a creator, must not have wanted. Is the anthology an effort to expand his audience pool amongst people you are already aware of but have not watched his work or read his stories and maybe introduce him to newer audiences?
Srijit Mukherji: His films have found recognition beyond people who have actually watched his films. I know a lot of people talk reverentially about Ray, without having watched any of his films. Just the fact that he put India on the cinematic global map is so well documented, and he was so celebrated. People who have no interest in his kind of cinema also talk reverentially about him like he’s some God who used to make a lot of cerebrally stimulating films. And so he’s there in the pantheon, rightfully placed. He was a polymath so his aspects are very many to count. Out of which short story is possibly the most popular after his filmmaking genius, but mainly in Bengali. There have obviously been Penguin translations and all that but generally, for people who have grown up in Bengal, we’ve grown up with these stories. Very sharp and smart urban prose. Something which kind of led to the iconic characters like Feluda and Shonku, and stories that went beyond them and delved into supernatural, horror, satire, irony and the entire gamut. So this series for me is a very welcome series. It is very much like the Satyajit Ray Presents series, which used to happen on Doordarshan once upon a time. It brings that aspect of Ray to the forefront and introduces that to not only a pan Indian audience but also cutting across the age barrier. We reinterpreted the stories in a darker space so that we can also seduce the younger generation into liking his stories or getting introduced to his stories. So it’s across geographical barriers and also age barriers. That is the thing which I think Ray really aims at.
Abhishek Chaubey: I agree with Srijit. As a matter of fact, I was one of the lucky ones because I was interested in movies and I ended up watching his films. I got to know that he also wrote stories and I could read the English translations of those stories at a fairly young age. But I don’t think anybody who is passionate about films, for him, this is just like the weekend thing to do, I don’t think they will have the exposure. These stories are given a tremendous amount of fun. Apart from the Feluda and Shonku stories, his supernatural and the macabre stories are a whole lot of fun. And I think youngsters, especially the young generation, really enjoy that. So I think it’s a capital idea to take those stories and have directors interpret them in today’s context. The Netflix series is really going to show this.
Smriti Kiran: Sayantan, you’re actually sitting on the rights of 12 stories and these are the first four that are going to be out. How difficult is it to get the rights to adapt Satyajit Ray stories?
Sayantan Mukherjee: I would like to be honest here. I didn’t find it to be very difficult. Maybe because I went to Babuda’s (Sandeep Ray) house two-three times. I sat with him, had some good food and we bonded. I think he just gave it to me because he thought, ‘He is just a young boy asking for 12 stories. Let’s see.’ So yeah, it was not difficult. Of course, it was making him understand how I am thinking at that time. I didn’t know exactly how this is going to pan out. But I was telling him that I’m going to make it quite nice, big and fun. The way I like it. I think he just gave in after the third meeting. He was like, ‘Okay, tell me how many of you want?’ That’s how it happened. It is difficult to get access to him, talk to him and explain it to him. But personally, I got really lucky and I think he’s the sweetest person. Srijit also knows him. It was great to just sit with him and explain this character.
Smriti Kiran: Walk us through how this whole project was put together. When you started off, you didn’t know which platform it was going to be on. And I think Srijit was one of the first people to come on board. So did Shiraz Ahmed, who wrote Bahrupiya, the first story that you shot. What are the challenges and how did this come together?
Sayantan Mukherjee: If I have to think of the genesis of this idea, I don’t exactly know the day it came in. But it was always there. As Srijit was saying, you grew up reading these stories. There was also this thing called Sunday Suspense that used to come on Radio Mirchi. I used to religiously listen to it. All these stories are just there in your mind that you would love to not only make them, but you’d also love to watch them as an audience. So that was there.
In the meantime, in Viacom, Tipping Point was making a lot of short films. Different kinds of storytelling, and making very short films and putting it out. So that was also happening parallelly. So when that was happening, this idea, which is always there in your mind, just came out. And I told Ajit that let’s do something like this using these stories, which are really exciting. I think he got more excited than I was because I told him two or three stories, and he read the other ones. The moment you read them, you realise how accessible the stories are and how fun the stories are. You actually forget that you were talking about “Satyajit Ray”. You suddenly realise that these are cool, fun stories, which you are reading. So I think that’s where Ajit also got really excited and he was like, ‘Let’s do this.’
In terms of adaptations, as we are mentioning that we have modernised them, or that they are dark, I don’t know. That’s actually how I also thought about it. We were not trying to modernize anything. I think the stories are very modern, even if we read the origin stories. For example, Abhishek’s story is not even based in today’s time, per se. So the idea was that if you’re taking it out of Bengal, then how can we explore it? How can you see other cultures through it, how can we find some other relevance to it? And I think that was the overall thematic connection between all these stories. So that’s how we approached it. We decided not to make it dark or modern. The idea was to find some other relevant way of telling the stories. When we wrote them, this was the best way we thought we could tell the stories. This is the way we would like to tell the stories. So that’s how it happened.
And then we made Bahrupiya. We didn’t have a platform but we were really excited about it. So we just thought that, yeah, let’s just make a pilot. And again, it was all Ajit. He really wanted to just go and make a pilot, even though there is no platform attached. I don’t know how he took that call. But thank God he did it because he ended up making Bahrupiya. It turned out quite interesting, for both of us. We have struggled a lot while shooting it. We didn’t have the Netflix budgets at that time. But the good thing is that Srijit is so used to working on lesser budgets that he enjoys it. If you give him more, he says, ‘No no, give me less.’
With Srijit, I realised that he was just there to make this film. It has to do with nothing else. He’s really up for all the challenges. So that worked out and then Netflix came on board. They said we have so many stories and there should be more people who would want to tell these stories.
I first met Abhishek and I pitched him two or three stories and I really wanted him to do the psychological thriller, the harder ones, because I thought in my mind, those are his kind of scripts. And he picked Barin Bhowmick-er Byaram (Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment). The moment he picked this one, I was very excited because he really believed in it.
Vasan and I just had a long chat on Spotlight and about what is this industry, how everybody’s dealing in this industry, and I think Spotlight originated from there. So that’s how it happened. Then, of course, the main struggle was the whole pandemic. A lot of us started something before and then our plans changed. Things you wanted to make didn’t really happen. Things you didn’t plan, happened. So for all of us to start something before the pandemic, to make cinema during the pandemic, and in the end, for it to come out gives you a sense of closure, honestly. After two years you have been able to turn something around with this pandemic on your head. So yeah, that’s how it goes.
Smriti Kiran: Ajit, three of your shows, Jamtara, Taj Mahal 1989 and She released last year on Netflix in quick succession – January, February and March 2020 respectively. These were all licensing deals. How did the success of these shows change things for Tipping Point? Was it easier to get Ray made?
Ajit Andhare: I think the advantage with the first three series was that they were already very much into production. In fact, many of the episodes were already shot and we completed the series. With Ray, the journey was different. We had only shot one story, and the balance had to be shortened. Also, there were a lot of permutations and combinations especially in terms of casting, and how do we cast differently? And how do we cast it more significantly? I would say Ray is where there was a lot more intense collaboration. And whenever there is a lot more intense collaboration, it is never easier. It is always more difficult. But I think it’s for the good of the show. For instance, where I really want to compliment Monica Shergill and her team is to really push the casting. To be honest, we were wearing the purist hat many times, and we were saying that this is the character, so do we really need this face? But today when you look back at the trailer, you can say you pulled off a casting coup. So there’s a lot of contributions that come from very different schools of thought. As long as everybody’s intents are aligned and pure you can work in a fashion like this and create and yet at the same time, I think it’s vital to leave a lot of creative freedom to the one who’s making it. So you can’t do too much of a backseat driving and this is something I really want to appreciate Netflix for. They understand the work. They let us do what we have to and sometimes they push us. I think it’s worked quite well which is why all of our output at Tipping Point is actually on Netflix.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants
Parvathy Thiruvothy: I absolutely loved the anthology. It was like five hours of a trance. The one underlying theme that I also sort of not struggle with but I’m constantly intrigued by is our sense of identity that we keep revisiting, reinventing, struggling with. So I saw that as a common thread throughout, like every character, especially the protagonists have some sort of a tug of war with their identity, with themselves or who the other person is. And while the storytelling and the performance and everything was very visceral for me, I really enjoyed that.
What really blew me away was the use of lighting and colour. There was this saturated depth to it. But at the same time, it wasn’t overwhelming. Did the four of you get together to use colour as some sort of a parallel theme? I would love to know the process behind the use of colours.
Vasan Bala: Sayantan kept everything a secret. Actually, he just revealed to each other what each other is doing. So he kept us on our toes. ‘That guy is better than you.’ But unfortunately, we all could never sit in one room and decide how this is going to be. We all worked on our initial projects, in that sense. Eeshit Narain is one of my favourite collaborators. He’s incredible. For me, my introduction to Ray began with his fantasy films like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath. So obviously, all those fantasy elements came in. We are also familiar with the almost-mainstream cinema and we understand the insecurities and ambitions over there.
Also, I think in all of these stories, the protagonist is usually an educated, confident, almost moody, arrogant person who then spirals down. Later, Mani Ratnam adapted ut in a way. So, in that sense, we all stayed in our own corners. But since it was Ray, we had this protagonist to explore and revel in.
Abhishek Chaubey: We could not ever meet or speak about each other’s films. I, as a matter of fact, barely remembered the stories they were adapting. But I think the balance had to be maintained by Sayantan. Some things have happened naturally, for a simple reason: all the stories, somewhere, deal with somebody or about the psychological exploration of the protagonist, what’s going on inside their heads. And a part of the story exists in the realistic realm, and part of it really exists just inside the character’s head.
In the case of my story, I had to find a way to show that. It’s very easy to do in literature. You could just write what the guy’s thinking. So when working with my team, Anuj Rakesh Dhawan, the DOP, and Aditya Kanwar, the production designer, we came upon the idea of treating the train set in a certain way. What was natural for us was to create that atmosphere as if you are in a sort of a mushaira or a very intimate gathering where ghazals are going on. Typically they would be warm and underlit with the lanterns. So that’s the feel we went with. Even with the train, we decided not to be too realistic about how the train is. We did away with the squalor of Indian railway trains and we created something that was neater, nicer, warm and sweet. We are getting into Musafir Ali’s head and talking about what it is to be a thief or not, but we wanted it to be an easy experience for the viewer rather than shake them from their core.
Srijit Mukherji: Sayantan was obviously instigating us throughout the shoot, showing us nice stills from the other person’s shoot so that we work doubly hard and all that. As Abhishek said, it flowed organically and naturally from the stories for me. I had a very simple objective. I had two stories, so they needed to be different. Luckily the stories kind of spontaneously gave their own colour palette and we placed them on the extreme ends of the colour temperature. Bahrupiya is warm, which underlines the colours of Kolkata. It’s the old world charm, the yellow taxis, the underlit Chung Wah restaurant with red tables, the grandma’s chamber. The entire colour treatment is very warm.
And on the other end of the spectrum, you have a cold and calculated Ipsit. So his entire story is almost taken from a Krzysztof Kieślowski morning – temperate, cold, absolute blue, white, glass kind of a palette, where everything is ruthless. And we’ve maintained that throughout. So if you see Forget Me Not and Bahrupiya back to back, you will understand the emotional and geographical divergence of the two stories. That was essentially my plan. That was essentially our design.
Ankush Sen Gupta: What stories and works of Ray influenced you as a director, and what made you adapt the ones you shot for Ray?
Abhishek Chaubey: Even before I read the Feluda or Shonku stories, I happened to read Indigo, about 20 years ago or something like that. Somebody gave me the book to read. So I had read these kinds of stories of Ray before I’d even read the more popular ones. I, at that point in time, fell in love with them instantly. Having seen some of his films, I was quite surprised by them. I found there to be a world of difference between his films and his short stories. And I really enjoyed it. I have a taste for such kinds of stories, which are thrilling and have the element of surrealism, the macabre. So I really enjoyed that. And I really wanted to, at some point, get the opportunity to adapt his short stories. I was also very surprised that so many hadn’t been made. I mean, they were just begging to be adapted for screen. And as far as these particular permissions go, you’ll have to give credit to Sayantan for sampling the group of directors and choosing the stories and all of that. But when Sayantan came to me, he gave me three or four stories to choose from. He expected me to take on something that was dark and twisted. I really fell for the story because I thought it was so much fun; COVID was already upon us and I just wanted to do something that makes everybody’s life easier. So I chose that.
Srijit Mukherji: Everyone has a favourite Ray story. In another chat, someone was opining, and rightfully so, that your choice of Ray movies defines you as a person. I started with Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and then went on and saw everything multiple times. I have my favourites, but since the focus is on short stories, my first brush with Ray was through a short story actually. It was with Septopus-er Khidey (The Hungry Septopus), the first short story in Ek Dojon Golpo (One Dozen Stories). He wrote his short stories in compilations of 12.
For me, the short stories have a huge appeal. They really captured my imagination. Ever since my childhood, I’ve been reading them, rereading them, reading the translations, reading multiple translations also. I genuinely feel that he’s fantastic as a short story writer and I have lots of favourites apart from these two. These two, I thought, were most amenable and compatible with the mandate of Netflix and Viacom of reloading or reinterpreting the original stories in a darker space. The original stories were written for young adults so there was no graphic content, and no darkness beyond a certain point. So we changed the endings, introduced characters and took it a notch or two higher in the darkness quotient, and all that. So to that exercise, I think these two stories were quite amenable.
Vasan Bala: Sayantan had shared Spotlight and Sadhan Babur Sondeho to choose from. I think Spotlight just spoke to me because I wanted to make a film about movies. So, this seemed like the perfect excuse. And like Srijit said, what Ray you like defines you as a person. I always saw Ray as a really cool, accessible filmmaker. It wasn’t like the languid or lilting kind of a filmmaker. If you see the first frame of Pratidwandi, and it comes out of a fire and just smashes into Dhritiman Chatterjee’s raging face. There are guns, knives, adventure, beautiful people and music. And Soumitra Chatterjee’s entrance in Charulata is when a storm is brewing. So, it’s all blockbuster aesthetics. I saw it like that and I kind of embraced it in the same sense of love, joy and excitement as well. So that is what made Spotlight an easy choice to pick and also to explore the way it has shifted.
Pritha Mukherji: In Bahrupiya, there are a lot of callbacks to a film you made, Vinci Da. So was the homework on makeup and prosthetics and your experience of working with film that could actually be handy when it came to designing the character of Indrasish?
Srijit Mukherji: Absolutely, absolutely. Vinci Da was actually partially inspired by the life of Somnath Kundu. He went on to become quite a sought-after make-up artist. I’ve been working with Somnath since 2017. I picked up the nuances of prosthetics and makeup from him. When I and the makeup artist for Bahrupiya jammed together, I told him ‘Look, this is how I think you should be doing this,’ and he was looking at me wondering how I knew all the jargon associated with prosthetics. So I told him about Somnath who taught me the very basics. So, it was a huge help and kind of a dress rehearsal for Bahrupiya.
Ruturraj More: Vasan, there’s always a sense of absurdity in your storytelling. What motivated you or what pushed you to go to such a level of absurdity, especially the montage when Vikram was shooting for the Hollywood audition. And yet make it a fun and sensible package?
Vasan Bala: Subconsciously, I don’t chase observation, it’s only when I get the feedback that I understand it is going there. I see it as real people. We are repressed with our own sense of morality and virtue, and then it comes across, either on Twitter or mostly Facebook, in a lot more words, or YouTube, and then we keep going into the absurd ourselves every day. So I think it is an extension of a very palpable reality in that sense. And also, Spotlight was about artists, and artists go through phases of false enlightenment like ‘Now I have understood life.’ We feel that we’ve gone through that churning, whole maze and we have emerged with some kind of clarity or onto the next level. So, in that sense, that whole Hollywood audition was just that kind of a trance. I wasn’t aiming for the absurd over there. The brief wasn’t to go bizarre. The brief was to just try and follow him and take him where he goes. It also gives us an opportunity to tap into some of his work and it automatically gives like a hallucinating tribute.
During marketing, actors are always asked, ‘How did you prepare?’ There’s so much pressure after Heath Ledger died that now everyone has to say that they did something extreme. That’s bullshit, but we all have to play into that bullshit, to keep up an image, to create a myth around us. While creating a myth, we can just slip and enter into another rabbit hole. So it was just a comment on those things. Because if you just go through all the actor interviews, if they have nothing, they’ll say, ‘I locked myself in a room.’ We all go through our false enlightenment and absurdities in real life, which is nowhere close to the truth.
Aadya Shah: As showrunner and creator, how did you manage to create a sense of consistency in tone and feel with four very different stories?
Sayantan Mukherjee: Overall, somehow all the stories have a very similar thematic element to them. They do connect because we speak about this one man going through a journey, we speak about the spiralling down of a person who is supposed to be in a much better state of life and then how he falls. So, thematically it was there. What we try to do here is not to push down a lot in terms of how the show needs to be in this particular manner. The idea was to just let the directors make it as free as possible. Within that sense, thematically, the stories were connected anyway. Somehow, some sense of resemblance came in. A lot of things happen organically. For example, the colour palettes, I don’t think I was making the conscious decision that if Vasan is doing this colour palette, then this one can’t do the same. The stories are so different, that they fell into different colour palettes as well. But overall, when you see them from a macro perspective, these are stories about four individuals, their journeys and something happens and how things take shape in their life. So if that is there, then everything else can be different, but it will always come back to the fact that they are in that same space. So I think Ray was doing that and not me.
Rohit Tambulwadikar: We are coming across an increasing number of anthologies nowadays, so is it right to assume that the OTT markets are showing an active interest in short format content? Are people seeking to make more anthologies? And does it reduce the pressure of keeping up the expectations with the audience since there are like four different stories and the next season does not require that amount of audience expectations?
Ajit Andhare: I’ll take you back to a film called Bombay Talkies, which we had produced many years ago, which actually was the first anthology we tried in the theatrical format. And Lust Stories on Netflix was actually Bombay Talkies travelling and becoming that. So that’s when we saw it travel and become an anthology on OTT. Anthologies have been a subject of much debate within the studio for us as well. There are many things that work for an anthology and many which don’t. So what works for an anthology is the freedom that you have. You are virtually able to assemble very different storytellers who can bring it their own flavours and their own lenses. You don’t need to be uniform. The whole idea is that you’re free to really shape the stories the way they shape themselves. So there is a lot of creative freedom that this format gives you. From a consumer point of view, it is very interesting. Because today, especially in lockdown, so much of consumption happens on the big series. Bingeing has caused viewer indigestion as well, at least in some of the viewers of my kind. Now, an anthology doesn’t take that kind of time commitment. So you can quickly put in an hour or so and you can even pause between two stories. So I think structurally, it’s consumer-friendly and therefore it works for the platform, unlike a series that takes a very long commitment. At the same time, it is not a continuing story so therefore, no appointment viewing, no bingeing, which are all again gold standards for platforms to chase.
So I think this is a debate that is always happening within platforms for and against anthology. For us, as creators, it is always a very refreshing format. It allows us to do things that many of the other formats do not allow you to do. Therefore, we favour it. As far as Ray is concerned, the structure could not have been anything else because we were basing it on his short stories. So initially, we were actually going with the thought that we use one director to tell all stories. But then it’s obvious that if we actually create a variable on the director telling different stories it will add to the appeal of each story. It will add a completely different dimension. So that is how we arrived almost at this. There’s no other way. The other thing is that this was to be a 12-city format. So each story was to be in one city and it moves. So that again made it like an anthology. It’s one of those things which you keep debating. I love anthologies. They are easy and they are friendly. They let me do a lot that I cannot do in a long format like a film or in a series. At the same time, I’m sure there are people who love their bingeing as well.
Smriti Kiran: The way the anthologies are reviewed by the critics, there almost seems like there is some consistency that everyone keeps speaking about. What is your lens on those reviews because that also pretty much defines what people start to expect out of anthologies?
Ajit Andhare: You’re right. One does look back even in hindsight and I wonder whether we really thought about this because I think the best help we got is from the man Ray himself because there is a certain uniformity in the writing quality. If you see the graph, almost every story starts in a very normal, accessible, understandable world where the characters are very usual. And then you go do this either absurd, as in Vasan’s story, or bizarre, as in Srijit’s story, or whatever you choose. So I think, to me, what is really holding all of these stories together, aesthetically, is really that common writing, which at times becomes very gritty, and at times is almost very affable.
I would love to claim that we had this massive vision and we programmed it this way. I think we were very clear that the story must drive what will be told, and then the directors must have the freedom as to what palette they want to go for, what flavour they want to bring in. That’s what has happened. That’s why each of the stories has evolved very differently. And I would say that if there is any tonal quality, which is similar, it is by the grand blessings of Satyajit Ray himself and we can take very little credit for it. It is a happenstance, happy incident of all four guys possibly finding something common in the universe that they were inhabiting.
Indrakshi Mitra: Srijit has worked in many other forms and many other stories of Satyajit Ray, especially Feluda that he has made into a series as well. What is the difference between when you were building these two short stories into this series and when you were making Feluda?
Srijit Mukherji: It was a very, very loyal adaptation. So much so that there were lines in the script which were actually directly taken from the text. Since we’ve grown up with the text, we know some lines of Feluda and Lalmohan Ganguly almost like the back of our hands. So we identified them. This is why I remain very, very loyal. And we made a series which was a purist’s delight in that sense, because it was very loyal to the text – playing it by the book, as they say,
Here, the approach was absolutely different. Instead of pacing the stories in its time period, in its particular social milieu. Initially, we were planning to take the stories out of Bengal and set them in 12 cities across India with their own cultural, sociological, political backdrop, flavour and colour. There was a question about travel. Here, there was a question of reloading or reinterpreting in a much darker space, in a space that moves away from the origin. The backdrop, the context moves away from the original but keeping the essence of the story intact. The central plot device is intact. We’ve only tinkered around with the ending, we have tinkered around with the characters and we’ve pushed it up, we’ve continued with the nightmare where Ray had given relief to his readers at the end, rescuing the reader from the nightmare saying that it kind of didn’t happen. But we took it to a space where what if it actually did happen. So that kind of change, that kind of dramatic pushing up in the general direction of darkness and being more graphic. So all these treatment issues, all these aesthetic movements made this kind of exercise much different from Feluda.
Akash Huda: Sayantan, was there a particular reason to not keep the series in Bengal or any other language? And can we expect the upcoming projects to be comparatively gender fluid?
Sayantan Mukherjee: I don’t think we have a very particular reason for keeping it Hindi. But mostly one would be that we have read it in Hindi, and some of them have already been made in Bengali. There was also a radio show in Bengali. So I just thought that most of us have heard or seen them. And why not also show it to everyone, right? Now, you can ask if it is in Bengali, will people not watch it? Of course, they will. But the stories are so timeless and universal, so why not open it up? And I think it came from there. We wanted to travel with the story because you can actually set it up anywhere and then also, it will speak for itself. Just for more people to see and enjoy them. It was just coming from there.
In terms of gender fluidity, you will definitely see it. That would always be what we’re trying to do. So absolutely.
Ajit Andhare: I remember this short film we called Bouma. We actually made this call for that particular product to keep it in Bangla itself. And unfortunately, I mean, that is the nature of the language, it limits the travel. So it was a beautiful short film, but it is limited. Ray has inhabited Bengal for eternity and he will inhabit it till eternity. Why not really bring it out to 200 countries where he may not have reached so it was obvious we should put it out in a more accessible and wider language.
Manisha Misra: Which stories would female directors be most suitable for and was that option considered?
Sayantan Mukherjee: Everyone is suitable if they want to tell this story. So it was coming from there. And we went to everyone. Trust me, there were no such conversations in our mind or otherwise, that let’s go to a male or a female director. I don’t think we think like that. So, it was never like that. And if you’re asking me which other female directors know, I think any director who would want to tell these stories. Any director would be excited to tell these stories. It should not be about gender at all.
Ajit Andhare: And it was many times the practical issues. For instance, I remember we approached Meghna Gulzar and Gauri Shinde. And we have 12 stories, this is just the first set. So there will be an occasion for us to steer clear of gender accusation, but we have approached and for various practical reasons, timing and so on and so forth it just didn’t sort of work out but I’m sure it will.
Sai Karann Kasina: When we are adapting a book it’s a perception we’d like to try to bring out. When each of you is reading the stories, you have your own questions. How do you decide which topics or which elements do you want to keep consistent while adding your own narrative?
Srijit Mukherji: Essentially, the elements which will not distort or hamper the core of the story. Every story has a code. Every story has a central plot device, every story has a spirit, a soul around which you can have countless interpretations, permutations, extrapolations. All that is fine. That depends on the aesthetics, the perspective of the maker, or the person who’s interpreting. For me, it was always that particular soul, that essence which was kind of sacrosanct for me. So the elements which meddled with that were changed, adapted, extended or made darker, but the elements which didn’t were kept intact. For example the plot device. You make something that has absolutely no connection with the mother text. That is something I personally avoid because I think then it’s not fair if you’re basing it on a story by Ray. There has to be some cinematic umbilical cord with the script, the visuals with the original story. Apart from that cord, everything else can change. So that’s the principle I follow.
Rishav Bhattacharya: Abhishek, while watching your film I could not help but notice the similarities between the film and Nayak where the majority of the story is on a train on a journey somewhere and there are brief escapes into dreams and borderline surrealistic imagery. How does an artist like yourself maintain your voice while adapting something written by a prominent director?
Abhishek Chaubey: I think filmmakers can’t help being themselves. No matter what they do, who they are is going to show in their films. I don’t think any filmmaker is a philanthropist and is thinking that we are making films for the audience. They’re making them for themselves. Because it’s a reflection of who they are. So it’s very hard to hide who you are. When you’re given an opportunity to adapt a Satyajit Ray short story, it’s an absolute honour that you’re asked. But at the same time, it’s also a huge amount of pressure because you don’t want to let him down, you don’t want to let the audience who love his films, and love him as an artist, down. So that bit of pressure is there. But I never tried to deliberately imitate or try to borrow anything directly from him. I already had a story to work with. If there was this reflection, we realise in hindsight that this almost sounds like a homage to him. We never set out to do anything of that sort. What you’re trying to do when you are given a Satyajit Ray story to adapt is save your ass. You don’t do a bad job of it. You do a good job of it so that you preserve your dignity and you’re out of it. This was a great story. This is a fun story. This was a very funny story. I had two great actors and I had a great set of technicians. And I think the changes that we made from the story to the screen, we only made it so that what Ray was trying to say in his story, we could accentuate that thought, bring it out easily for the screen. Those are the only changes we made. Otherwise, we decided to stick as close to the story as possible. And more than anything else, enjoy ourselves while we’re at it.
Debraj Goswami: The protagonist’s introductions were very interestingly done considering the short time. What was the journey?
Srijit Mukherji: I don’t think there was a specific plan as such, that we will go low angle and will have a kind of larger than life background music and you have the protagonist. I think we went with the characters organically with the kind of lensing, the kind of introduction Indrasish or Ipsit would demand. That is what we treated them to. I don’t think there was any separate design for a character introduction. It flowed very, very spontaneously from the character, from the story, from the graph. And obviously, we needed to have an initial point of the graph. Like all stories and all characters. So the initial point was defined by the particular protagonist’s cultural milieu, his economic background and everything.
Vasan Bala: We were under no compunctions of creating a hero. These are all characters or protagonists. If you’re talking about designing something that really wasn’t the idea over here, though in the promo you see back shots of everyone which just happened. This was not the conventional Hindi film template that we were going for. So as such, there is no introduction in that sense. You’re either there in the midst of a conversation, they’re by themselves or they’re travelling somewhere. So it’s just everyday situations you’re in and then you get into the drama, which is anyway there. That is where you actually see the design. It’s not really in the introduction, but as they go into the journey is when we bring them into a particular design and then show them in a particular light.
Abhishek Chaubey: Hero ko introduce karne ke liye a specific sound or music ka zamana toh chala gaya. You don’t do that anymore, certainly not in an anthology like this one. I think the shot that I chose to introduce Musafir was for the simple reason because what I really wanted to do was to introduce a character who is so self-assured, so smug in his success, so self-involved, that he doesn’t care who’s around him. He’s just walking in this tunnel on the way to the platform and singing, lost in the melody. So that’s why the introduction of the way it is because I just wanted to bring out what the issue with this man is. I think I do that over two scenes before he actually meets his nemesis.
Tanisha Dwara: Kay Kay Menon and Manoj Bajpayee are a few of my favourite actors, and their performance was astounding. Why did you choose them? Were they given the liberty of adding their own essence to the characters? Or did they completely transform and get into the skin of the original characters when they were written?
Abhishek Chaubey: Manoj is one of my all-time favourite actors, and I had an absolutely wonderful time working with him. As a matter of fact, I look for opportunities to create characters for him. When we wrote Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, there was a general consensus that Manoj would be an excellent option for the character if he so chose to work with us, and he did, which is great.
I guess most actors bring a lot of their personalities into the characters that they play. It is not often that you write something and you already imagine the actor playing it. As a writer, as a creator, you also grow up and warm up to the idea of somebody playing a character. So there is no doubt about the fact that all actors, definitely the good ones, bring their personalities with the character. However, they really have to travel some distance from who they are to become the character that they are going to play. I don’t think Manoj has ever played a ghazal singer or an Urdu speaking guy in his life. I think he did something in Zubeidaa where he played royalty or something, but this was a very different shade. The funny thing was that while he had to come across as a singer, he had to speak Urdu convincingly, he had to learn how to press the right chords in the harmonium. I told him to not take himself too seriously. When you lip-sync, remember the way to do it. Don’t become Jagjit Singh completely. Find the balance. And he also puts a smile on your face when he’s singing. It’s just great to have somebody like a Manoj or Kay Kay in Srijit’s case. They’re like supercomputers. You just feed them a little programming and then you get the results so easily that your work really becomes very easy.
Srijit Mukherji: I always looked for an opportunity to work with Kay Kay. I absolutely love what he does, the way he approaches his craft. I’ve been stalking him for a very long time actually. I have been trying to cajole him since 2013 into doing various things, I offered him many things, but somehow it hasn’t come together. And finally, I cracked this one and we became very good friends over the course of years. I think he has a thing for Kolkata, his wife is a Bengali and he has this soft corner for the city, the Bengali culture and everything. So, Indrasish came quite naturally to him.
Their acting is a question of jamming. You jam with them. You take a character, you talk to them, they talk to you. It’s like a duet between the director and the actor, and the characters are the song. You give a line and he picks it up, he gives off a line, the director picks it up through its treatment. So that’s how it happens with Kay Kay and Ali Fazal as well. The amount of dedication that he displayed because of the prosthetics involved. And in the humid sweltering heat of Kolkata, that is incredible, that is something which I think any young, aspiring actor would love to pick up. Hours and hours, he would patiently wait and he would not lose his cool. He would be focused. And these sessions were quite gruelling because we hear three or four very different looks. I was not satisfied with a lot of trials. It was a very long trial and error method. Since I have already done a film and I work very closely with makeup artists, I am very finicky when it comes to that kind of thing. And we didn’t have a lot of budgets. It was a very, very limited production in terms of budget and so we have to make the most of meagre resources. While all that is a challenge for the producer and creator, it is also a challenge for the actor. Kay Kay is accustomed to a lot of luxuries, a lot of resources while shooting. So the fact that we couldn’t give that to him and yet he kind of made this character what it was, despite all these bottlenecks, is something which is very admirable.
Smriti Kiran: Everyone wants me to extend the question, and also request you to talk about Ali Fazal, and Vasan about Harshvardhan Kapoor and your cameo.
Srijit Mukherji: I was aware of Ali’s work and the interesting filmography and I was quite keen on working with him. Again, sometimes just the novelty of a character excites the actor. I don’t think he has done anything like this before. The ruthless corporate guy who is almost robotic in his efficiency and success. So, he loved it the moment we pitched it to him, and it was a fantastic experience working with him. We’ve had our share of arguments, but then we’ve resolved them. We’ve resolved them so well that the scene escalated. After that, there was no looking back. This was an initial couple of days of getting to know each other. After that period, I think he’s fantastic. One great thing about shooting a film in sync sound is that there are certain things you can never replicate in dubbing. Ali’s performance, I thought, is such a sync-sound performance, such small nuances like intake of breath, some stutters, the saying of certain lines. This entire repertoire is something that will be only possible if you’re shooting sync-sound and Ali made full utilization of that.
Smriti Kiran: Were you ever tempted to cast a South Indian actor to play Ipsit Nair? And what do you feel about the growing conversation around choosing actors to play characters that belong to those communities?
Sayantan Mukherjee: So I think the conversation is mostly about how there is an experience of someone, it would be only the fairest way to have that person who has mostly gone through that experience. And that’s what we’re talking about. You try to be more real to it. Having said that, I also believe that you can only have so many experiences from your own life. We are talking about storytellers here. We’re talking about creators here. If we can somehow find a balance between all of this where it doesn’t necessarily have to be a mandate like that. But we can be just more conscious about it. And, all the conversations we are having here right now, for example, having more gender fluidity, having female directors, I think what we’re trying to talk about here is to just open it up, to give space, to be more conscious and aware about it. But it can’t be a mandate like it has to be this. It can’t be that. Then again, we are creating the same problem. It’s a great conversation that we are having that we should be a little bit more aware of these things. I think everybody’s trying really hard to work on that. People who haven’t before. The only thing you can do is to be increasingly aware of it. More than that, I don’t know what one can do right now. I’m sure we will also understand more, the more that we go ahead with this.
Ajit Andhare: I eat this question for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And I can tell you that there is very little science for it. There is very little method for it. Take the case of two prominent castings where I was of a very different view than what we eventually cast. I think generally what anyone does is a matter of what the feel is for the character. So for example, Bahrupiya, I don’t think any other person than Kay Kay ventured into our thoughts, because somehow he just inhabited the character, even at the writing stage.
Vasan Bala: For both Harsh and Radhika Madan, I had made calls even before the script was written. The story was there. So for Radhika’s character, there was no other discussion. It was only her. For Harsh, there were a lot of discussions. I threw in Harsh, because I knew there was going to be a jolt of immediate hatred. He’s Anil Kapoor’s son, so let’s hate him, nepotism and all that. Then there is that minuscule Bhavesh Joshi Superhero love, which I was counting on. I have known him since Bombay Velvet and when this film came along, I thought he could be an interesting option to try out.
The original short story had a fading hero’s journey. And in those days, it was always about the fading hero. But I think the fading hero’s journey is a lot more complex today because all the fading heroes still have a lot of money and clout but just figuring out good films now. Here the problem was young and burning out and also what works in an advantage for me is anyone today is a celebrity, right? A young person on the internet could be a celebrity, could be earning a lot of money. So celebrity culture in that sense has kind of widened. So I can convince you with the casting saying this person is popular and there is a scope that you probably buy it. Harsh also comes with his exquisite wardrobe as well. It’s incredible. Abhilasha Devnani and Harsh put it together. He did close to some 30-40 readings with an acting coach. And then with me, he did some 10 readings over Zoom. Over a period of time, we found what the tone of Vikram could be.
I’ve worked with Radhika, so there was a lot of confidence over there. Niren Bhatt did the first pass of dialogues. Then I gave the dialogues to Anubhuti Kashyap because she’s from Banaras. She gave her pass on the UP dialect and cleaned up the dialogues for us, then she read it out. Then we gave it to Radhika, then we did a reading, then we had our dialect coach on the set. We wanted sync sound, but there was a marriage happening in the pandemic, we were shooting in Jaipur, and we couldn’t record it properly, so we had to go and dub and we had another dialect coach. And so finally, with all those passes, we could get rid of Delhi and completely get UP in her. And knowing Radhika, she will not budge at any level, even if it is like 20 pages of dialogues or the most difficult thing that she’s done. She’s like an incredibly hard-working actor. It was very important to get Didi right because the character of a godwoman can be a lot of posturing, and, it was very important to let go of that posturing and actually become a real character. I mean, the godliness should be inside and not in the posturing. It should be in our confidence and the life that she’s lived. It’s been so tough that now she’s invincible. So there were different things that we would discuss and we arrived at a tone, sound, it can’t be too definite and dialogue-written. So we had to arrive at an in-between which we did. It was one of the most satisfying days of shoot that night with Radhika, Harsh and that scene. It was a lot of fun collaborating with them and Chandan Roy Sanyal. All of them came in with their inputs. They read it out as many times as we needed to so that when we were on set, it just looked as if it all happened. And it doesn’t look too acted or too performed.
Vibha Tikoo: There is revenge in almost every story. Where did that come from? There is this self-doubt that everyone has. And what is the significance of using a mirror?
Abhishek Chaubey: I had no clue that the others were using mirrors. It’s a happy accident. In my case, it was a natural reason for the simple reason that the original story was written in the first person. In literature, you can talk about what’s happening inside a person’s mind as well as what’s happening externally. It becomes that tricky in cinema. If you were to use voiceovers in every situation then that’s a low hanging fruit. Also, one of the important things about Musafir Ali’s character was to talk about how smug and self-assured he is that nothing can ruffle him or remove him from his comfortable position in his life. Subsequently, the story is exactly about that. It just flowed naturally that when he talks to the mirror, he is miraculously transported to the stage and talking to his audience, which he does for a living. A lot of ghazal singers are fond of talking and they do it in the middle of their performances. I think that was one of the most fun things that I did in Hungama. I had to find a device to show what was going on in his head and the train was going to be that device and I just flew with that.
Srijit Mukherji: Abhishek’s description of Musafir Ali sounded eerily similar to that of Ipsit’s. I think this extended into the usage of mirrors and other devices like revenge and spiralling down. In the case of Forget Me Not, one interesting device we used was progressing lensing in a way so that the closeup of Ipsit as we go through his disintegration becomes distorted. So keeping the distance the same, we just used wider and wider lenses so that the breaking apart of the character became more visual. So we had 14 inflexion points of his disintegration and at every point, the lens changed. We were trying to accentuate and prop up the histrionic disintegration so beautifully, helmed by Ali with our lensing which was getting progressively distorted and by the edit pattern. The edit pattern is crisp, sharp and self-assured, slick and smart. It gets more languid, longer shots, stronger holds, more random and unpredictable as you go along the story.
Vasan Bala: Mirrors are interesting things. Our own memory of ourselves is a mirror image which is incorrect – the opposite unless you have perfect face symmetry, what you’re seeing in the mirror is not you. It’s a slightly different image of yourself and that’s what you carry with yourself. The one that you trust is not 100% accurate. It leads us to vanity and all that. In Satyajit Ray’s books and movies, the good thing is that his protagonist is a learned, thinking person. And they will go for self-destruction in their own learned, thinking way because they have the capacity to think. And thinking can lead to so many possibilities. One of which could be paranoia. So it is the dumb person who will lead you because that person doesn’t need to introspect and can always be confident. So, which is why when you take any good filmmaker, any good writer, the protagonist has to be a thinking, learned person, so that spiralling down is much more interesting. From there the awareness and conflict come. If you have no stimulus for your own self, there is no conflict, right? You’re not bouncing, you’re just steering in a smooth way. So, we have created our fixed frictions with our knowledge and our evolution, which is going in opposite directions. So, those are interesting things to look into. And obviously, Ray being Ray, he gives it to us on a platter. That is why I feel, we probably all use mirrors, which also Ray himself does, in a lot of his films.
Smriti Kiran: How did you create the look?
Vasan Bala: We were very sure that the look has to be the blankest expression ever. We had taken it from Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones look. He just does this slight smouldering. So it’s like the commercial look, right? The Hollywood commercial look. The thing about cinema is we don’t know why something works, right? Someone puts in so much but ends up as a character artist for his lifetime, while someone who just walks or stands is probably a superstar. So you never know why the magic of cinema works. Everyone’s trying to unravel that in intellectual ways. You hear horror stories about a director not knowing anything and then that will be like a masterpiece. And you never know why that happens. Sometimes an actor gives a tough time but it’s the most incredible performance ever. This is the magic we live for. That is movie-making magic and it shouldn’t be explained. Was it real? Was it make-belief? We will never know. And we shouldn’t.
Utkarsh Pandey: Abhishek, does Manoj Bajpayee in your story stand for every artist who steals from everyone and in the end, it turns out everyone is stealing? Every person is who they are because they are stealing from everyone else?
Abhishek Chaubey: Another friend of mine watched the film and thought it was about plagiarism. It is about the larger question that we are all thieves regardless of whether we are artists or not. It’s a yin and yang thing. We all have good and bad in us, and that’s okay. As long as you have the ability to confront, to look at yourself and accept the fact that you are a bit of an asshole. There’s going to be redemption for you. And everybody deserves redemption. So yeah, that’s what I did. I think it just tweaked the original short story a wee bit because it ended at the punch line. And while I was adapting. I just wanted to go one notch deeper in terms of what it’s trying to say. The very fact that it dealt with an artist, I think, leads to the interpretation that we talked about plagiarism. Plagiarism is like any theft so I think it applies to all of us.
Smriti Kiran: Are there going to be more seasons of Ray?
Ajit Andhare: Hopefully, season two will drop very soon. We are very keen. We’ve got 12 stories, we’ve got women directors, we’ve got all sorts of fluidity waiting to happen. But it really depends on how excited Netflix is and what the audience responds to all of that.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with the team of Ray in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.
For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.
P.S: The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) conducts Dial M For Films, an online knowledge series, free of cost because we believe in fair and equal access to the insight and experience of talent from the world of cinema for all. If you find these sessions of value and would like to quote from them or distribute them further as study material, we request that you give MAMI and Dial M For Films credit while doing so.
We would also love to hear from you about any feedback or comments you have for us. Please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org