Sandip Ray ignored in Ray’s [2021] creative process, but should he have been consulted?

Amidst the growing criticism of the Netflix web series, mainly by Ray-holics, we wonder is there any merit in the argument that any kin should be involved in the creative process of the retelling/adaptation of literary work by their illustrious family member?

Ray [2021]

By Mayur Lookhar

India is a country with strong opinions.  It reflects in the social media trends, where often content from India evokes a debate.  Political content has largely become a war turf for various political ideologies.  Cinema and sports, mainly cricket, are two subjects that generally come straight from the heart. Mind you, the PR machinery of Bollywood [Hindi cinema] leaves no stone unturned in their paid hashtag trends, but largely netizens don’t hold back in their views on cinema and cricket.

In the world of Indian cinema, the last few days has seen a debate on Netflix India’s latest web series Ray [2021] – a anthology based on the short stories of Satyajit Ray, counted amongst the finest filmmakers of all time.

Netflix’s Ray [2021] is the retelling of Ray’s four short stories – Bipin Chowdhury’r Smritibhrom, Bahrupi, Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram, and Spotlight.  The Bengali stories are contemporised and retold in Hindi. Srijit Mukherji has adapted the first two as Forget Me Not and Bahrupiya, respectively, while Abhishek Chaubey has taken Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram to an Urdu milieu in his adaption, Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa.   Vasan Bala hasn’t changed the title, but he has envisioned his Spotlight in new age Bollywood.

The early reviews were mixed, but over the course of the last few days, social media is filled with voices expressing their disappointment over the adaptations.  Not surprisingly, many aggrieved views are coming from Rayholics, Bengalis.  Maybe it’s a fair criticism that these adaptations don’t do justice to the original stories, its original writer, but merely aping is not acceptable. There will always be just one Satyajit Ray.

The Rayholics are the best judge of the Netflix anthology.  The critical voices have only got more ammo after many reports quoted the legendary filmmaker’s son Sandip Ray as saying, “I was not involved at all; I was not consulted and I was not shown the final products”. 

Satyajit Ray (c) with wife Bijoya and son Sandip (R) . Image source: Imprints and Images of Indian Film Music facebook

Sandip, who hasn’t seen the Netflix web series yet, went on to say that given the wide criticism, he is unsure about watching the series.  

With Ray jr. expressing such views, the criticism is only bound to grow further. Whilst every view is welcome, we wonder whether should a kin be involved in the creative process of retelling of a literary work by their illustrious family member?

The key to note here is that this is a tributary anthology, a retelling of Ray’s four short stories, but not a biopic on the great man. If it was the latter, then involving Sandip in the creative process was natural and completely justified. However, since it is not a biopic, but mere Hindi/Urdu adaptations, then is there a merit in Sandip’s argument?  Ray junior admitted to giving his consent for the anthology, but was Netflix and the directors obligated to involve Sandip in the creative process?

Sandip Ray

Well, the key question that rises here is that was Sandip in any way involved in the development of these stories when his father first wrote them? If the answer is no, then how can he be involved in the creative process of the Netflix anthology.  Mind you Sandip is a filmmaker himself, whilst he surely would have given his valuable input, but merely being a son of a legend doesn’t entitle him to be involved in the creative process here.

For long Hindi cinema has steered away from biopics, adaptations – for fear of litigations, or producers simply weren’t interested in putting their money in them.  Such stories are more recent phenomenon, where virtually every third Hindi film claims to be based on or inspired by true events. When it comes to biopics, there is no question of a filmmaker making it without obtaining a No Objection Certificate from the person or his/her kin. Former Central Board of Film Certification chief Pahlaj Nihalani had made it mandatory for filmmakers to obtain consent from family members for biopics or films based on true stories.  Nihalani even went far by throwing out the rule book in case of films based on historical/important events or true stories. Nihalani was no wonder unpopular among the film fraternity. His removal was quietly cheered by the film industry.

While there is no debate on biopics, but dealing with the person or kin can be tricky too.   A couple of years ago, Abundantia Entertainment had announced Rifleman with the late Sushant Singh Rajput in the lead.  Around the same time, a little-known film 72 Hour: Martyr Who Never Died [2019] was released.  The film was based on unheralded 1962 Indo-Sino war hero Rifleman Jaswant Singh.  Director, writer, lead actor Avinash Dhyani had accused Abundantia of violating his rights by announcing Rifleman.  To the best of our knowledge, Abundantia had simply announced the title but it never gave any information on its content.  Dhyani had claimed to having the sole right to Jaswant Singh’s story as he had obtained a written consent from the martyr’s mother, who later passed away.  The trouble for Dhyani happened when another family member ridiculed his claim. Dhyani had taken both this family member and Abundantia to court.  We don’t know the final word on that case, but Rifleman never got made.  What would happen if Abundantia decides to tell Rifleman Jaswant Singh’s story in future with a new lead? Only time will tell.

Legally speaking, no one can claim rights to a historical, important event out in public domain. Also, copyrights granted come with a expiry date – 60 years.  In 2002, three different films were released on the heroics of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh.  Astonishingly, two of them – Raj Kumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh, and Guddu Dhanoa’s 23 March 1931: Shaheed released on the same day – 7 June, 2002. Now did Bhagat Singh’s surviving kin gave NOCs to both directors? Or were they even consulted?

Maybe legally filmmakers, producers are under no obligation to consult family members, but it would be unethical to totally ignoring a kin in case a story largely speaks about a person’s personal life.

We had another interesting case in 2020 when Meghna Gulzar directed co-produced Chhapaak courted controversy after seasoned writer Rakesh Bharti accused Gulzar, Fox Star Studios of cheating. The film was based on the story of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal.  Bharti had claimed to have obtained a consent letter from Agarwal to make a documentary, and even a feature film on her life.  Bharti approached Fox and merely submitted a logline but, as claimed by then Fox employee Rukmini Sen, Bharti didn’t revert back after merely submitting a logline.  Speaking to Beyond Bollywood, Alok Dixit, Agarwal’s former partner had denied having any rights agreement with Bharti.  The court had dismissed Bharti’s claims.

While there is a strong case for not involving family members in the creative process, but Bollywood, [well, this writer can only speak for Bollywood] doesn’t have a great record in telling biopics and true stories. The former often cops criticism for being more hagiography than biography.  No writer, director will publicly acknowledge as to how a celebrated figure or his/her family take the final call on what goes inside the film.  The two biographical films on India’s two most popular cricketers couldn’t escape this criticism.

Films based on true stories have a tendency to err on the side of melodrama.  The descendants of Kashibai were upset with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali for distorting facts by showing Kashibai dancing with her souten [husband’s second wife] Mastani in the period love story Bajirao Mastani [2015].  

It’s not always the descendants, but literary book adaptations, too, have courted their share of controversy. Author Harinder S Sikka had accused director Meghna Gulzar, and her father Gulzar, of marginalising him from Raazi [2018] that was adapted from his book Calling Sehmat.

Harinder S Sikka

Sikka came down hard on the father, daughter duo accusing them of distorting facts and even labelling them as Pakistanis in disguise.  Maybe in literary adaptations, it is wise to involve the author in the creative process.  But that shouldn’t come at the cost of cinematic creativity.  Any distortion must be condemned, but Gulzar can’t be faulted for a balanced, unbiased screenplay.  We’ve had enough of the chest thumping jingoistic dramas that do no justice to the valour of our heroes.

Dharma Productions, producers of Raazi, drew flak again in 2020 over their film Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl – based on an unheralded Kargil war hero.  As a reviewer, layman, this writer liked the inspiring, aspirational story.  The Indian Airforce though accused it of projecting the coveted institute in poor light.  Srividya Rajan, who was the other female pilot pressed into sortie mission during the Kargil war, was also critical of the film.  Could this criticism be avoided had the producers consulted the IAF? Hey, but this was a film on Gunjan Saxena and it had her blessings.  Besides, there was nothing in the film that comprised the national security of the nation. It didn’t need any whetting from the armed services.

Cinema has a certain language; it requires certain drama, tropes. A little bit of creative liberty is acceptable as long as there is no distortion.  The ones that err, naturally get panned.  In an old interview to yours truly, Emraan Hashmi was humble enough to admit that maybe they justified controversial cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin more than they should have in the biopic Azhar [2016].  

For biopics, the challenge is seeking NOCs from family members. There is bound to be trouble if a celebrated figure has more than one heir.  Anurag Basu’s ambitious dream – the Kishore Kumar biopic with Ranbir Kapoor as the lead, had to be shelved after son Amit Kumar raised the red flag.

Early this year, Tajdar Amrohi, the son of late filmmaker Kamal Amrohi, had warned producer Prabhleen Sandhu to refrain from making a web series on the life of the late great actress and his step-mother Meena Kumari.   Amrohi was married four times and had three children from his first wife.  He had none from Kumari who died early.

Hindi cinema’s remake culture often leaves the original creators disgruntled. In 2013, legendary screenwriters Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan were upset with the heirs of the late Prakash Mehra for remaking their 1973 blockbuster revenge drama Zanjeer without their consent. It just wasn’t Salim Khan but his super star son Salman Khan, too, has famously voiced his concern over the Zanjeer remake.

 Whilst the legal production, reproduction, syndication rights may belong to the producer, Akhtar has always pressed on the fact that how a writer never loses his/her Intellectual Property Rights.  Sholay [1975], another blockbuster of the Salim-Javed duo was remade by Ram Gopal Varma as Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag [2007].  Both the remakes were disastrous, an insult to the original. Their fate is a reminder of how some classics are best left untouched.

Dealing with immediate family members is a challenge, but Indian cinema is privy to tales of unknown descendants waking up one day to lay claims over a popular figure, when their biopic is around the corner.  We are not sure but didn’t someone in Uttar Pradesh claimed to be a descendant of Malik Muhammad Jayasi and filed a complaint seeking a stay on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat [2018]?  The film is based on a poem by the 15 century Sufi poet.

Coming back to the argument whether Sandip Ray should have been consulted? Well, like we mentioned before, kin can be involved in an adaptation of a fictional work as long as s/he contributed to their illustrious family member’s particular work.  The line is perhaps drawn for adaptation, especially fiction, but if it comes to biopics, true stories, the various examples, tiffs mentioned above, are a reminder that there is still no definitive solution here.

Now for a biopic on a legend, who has multiple heirs. The key thing here is that the children never came before their father/mother.  If a story is about a celebrated figure’s personal life, then the take of the living spouse(s) and the children does matter. However, in the case of Meena Kumari, can her step children lay claim to her life story since there’s always been talk that the children never lived with Kumari.  Shaandaar Amrohi has passed away, while his brother Tajdar’s claim to rights over any creative content on the life of Meena Kumari is debatable. Now even if a celebrated figure had just one marriage but if his/her volume of acclaimed work came before the birth of the children, then the latter perhaps will not be great source material for such a content.

Given the poor record of remakes, producers, directors are best advised to consult and seek nod from original writers.  No creative person wants undue interference in his/her work, but producers, too, ought to be sensitive in dealing with sensitive, tragic stories. Don’t shun the legal heir, original writers completely. Cross checking from the right source will only enable filmmakers to eek out blunders.  In the end its not about Ray [2021] or quality but simply upholding integrity by and of all stakeholders.  That shouldn’t be a tall ask, or is it?

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