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‘Adapting a story by a master of cinema is a double-edged sword’

Writer-director Abhishek Chaubey on adapting Satyajit Ray’s story for a new web series and why in movies, no one talks the way people do in real life

Written by Alaka Sahani |
June 27, 2021 6:40:18 am
Abhishek Chaubey, Abhishek Chaubey interview, Abhishek Chaubey news, Abhishek Chaubey films, Abhishek Chaubey web series, Satyajit Ray's stories, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsAbhishek Chaubey

While adapting Satyajit Ray’s short story Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment as Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa for a new Netflix series titled Ray, why did you decide to change the protagonist, a Nazrul Geeti singer, into a ghazal singer.

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When Niren Bhatt (screenplay writer) and I started working on this adaptation, one of the first challenges was to find the right setting for the story. I wouldn’t have had any problem retaining the original setting except that the characters would have to speak in Bengali. I could not imagine Barin and Pulak (the characters in the original story) speaking in Hindi just for our understanding. It was important to transpose this story to a Hindustani-speaking setting. Ray sa’ab’s story is set in a very specific milieu. That apart, I needed a specific context for the characters. So, I chose the world of Urdu ghazal and poetry. It is a very specific world with its own idiosyncrasies, characters and language.

Why did you choose to adapt this story for the series?

I was given around six stories to pick from by (showrunner) Sayantan Mukherjee. Ray’s stories have a different flavour than his movies. They have an element of the bizarre, the surreal, or the fantastic. Some of them are psychological explorations of the primary characters. Yet, somewhere in his stories, including in the darker ones, there is a touch of humour. That’s what attracted me to this story. I knew how the comedy of manners would play out in the adaptation. Here, the protagonist is in a crisis, experiencing severe guilt and is scared of being caught by someone who is a wrestler. We watch the story unfold, tongue in cheek.

When were you introduced to Satyajit Ray, the author?

Nearly, two decades ago. I was fresh off the boat in Mumbai when a friend gifted me a collection of Ray’s stories (Indigo) on my birthday. I had watched most of his famous movies by then. But I was surprised and amused by his writing. The first-ever script I wrote was based on a short story by him. That never got made.

Did you feel a sense of responsibility while working on the screen adaptation?

When you adapt a story by a master of cinema, it’s a double-edged sword. While it was a great opportunity, I knew my work was going to be scrutinised and I wanted to do a good job of it. However, this is not the first adaptation I have worked on. I have done an adaptation of Ruskin Bond’s The Blue Umbrella, and helped Vishal Bhardwaj in writing Omkara (2006, it is based on Shakespeare’s Othello). From those experiences, I understood  that, after a point, you have to forget about being critically observed and make the story your own.

Once we had an understanding of the kind of characters Musafir Ali (Manoj Bajpayee) and Baig (Gajraj Rao) are, we kept the story aside. Only after we finished writing, we went back to the original to check if we had missed out on something interesting or messed around with it too much.

You are often complimented for your casting decisions. Is there a story behind how you got Bajpayee and Rao on board?

Manoj bhai was an instant choice as we wanted a strong actor to play the role of Musafir. He is also a star. So, casting him makes the producers happy. It was a matter of his saying yes. The casting of Baig took longer. Honey Trehan suggested Gajraj bhai’s name. We had no idea that Manoj bhai and Gajraj bhai knew each other from their college days and had done theatre together. Yet, they had barely worked with each other in films. Even though both were cast in Bandit Queen (1994), they had no scenes together. Their camaraderie contributed a lot to the process. They went out of their way to help each other. We shot amidst COVID-19 restrictions in the last quarter of 2020. We created a space like a train compartment where they could rehearse the scenes. So, on the sets it was a lot of fun.

Abhishek Chaubey, Abhishek Chaubey interview, Abhishek Chaubey news, Abhishek Chaubey films, Abhishek Chaubey web series, Satyajit Ray's stories, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Actor Manoj Bajpayee in a still from Chaubey’s adaptation of a Satyajit Ray short story, that is part of the anthology Ray, that released on Netflix on June 25

During an interview, Bhumi Pednekar had mentioned carrying heavy weights and walking barefoot while rehearsing for her role in your film Sonchiriya (2019). Do you always rehearse that much?

There are certain things that you don’t want to figure out on the sets. Bhumi had to carry a child in an arid region. Women walk in a certain way while doing so. Similarly, Manoj bhai couldn’t have learnt to play harmonium in one month for his role in Ray. But he learnt how to play those particular pieces of music (shown in the series) and had his fingers on the right chord while singing.

Different actors have their own unique approach to their craft. Arshad Warsi wouldn’t rehearse while we were making Ishqiya (2010) or Dedh Ishqiya (2014). Naseer bhai (Naseeruddin Shah) would love to do readings and rehearsals. I have to respect their ways.

You have used different languages and dialects in your movies. How important is that for you?

I have lived in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar. I grew up watching mainstream Hindi cinema. In later years, it rankled that, in movies, no one talks the way people do in real life. What we call dialects of Hindi are original languages like Braj Bhasa, Awadhi and Bhojpuri. Hindi has emerged from these. While making Udta Punjab (2016), I tried to use as much Punjabi as possible. I couldn’t imagine two police officers in the heart of Punjab speaking to each other in Hindi just so the audience can understand it. Indian viewers should accept the diversity we have and get used to watching movies with subtitles.

During your early years in the industry, you worked on two children’s movies – Makdee (2002) and The Blue Umbrella (2005). Is that something you’d want to return to at some point?

Children’s movies are something the entire family can enjoy together, something like the first Indian Jones — Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). If the opportunity comes my way, I would like to do something like that, a grand epic adventure. That requires a lot of money. It would be fun, action-oriented, with lots of humour.

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