Ananth Narayan Mahadevan’s Busan International Film Festival selection “The Storyteller,” based on a short story by Oscar-winning Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, isn’t “just another homage” to the late master.
Film enthusiast Tapobrati Das Sammaddar recommended Ray’s story “Golpo Boliye Tarini Khuro” to Mahadevan, who was “instantly fascinated by the layered social satire.” The story follows an unpublished Bengali storyteller who answers a help ad from a Gujarati businessman who suffers from insomnia, and there is a twist in the tale.
Samaddar translated the story and Kireet Khurana (“T for Taj Mahal”) and Mahadevan developed it into a screenplay that was a faithful adaptation of the original. Mahadevan, who cites Ray’s “Charulata” and “Pather Panchali” as influences, says that the choice of film grammar was the tricky part of the shoot.
“If one claimed that the film would be a homage/tribute, then it called for an emulation of the master’s style. And yet in an age where cinema has transformed into ‘the camera being used like a broom’ – to quote Bertolucci – I couldn’t risk the popular accusation of looking ‘outdated.’ The scales tipped towards adapting Ray’s school of thought and cinema while retaining a director’s imagination of how the film would have looked, if Ray had chosen to film it himself,” Mahadevan told Variety.
“In fact this was the reasoning that made Sandip Ray [Satyajit Ray’s son] reverse his decision of not parting with the rights of Ray’s original stories. The watchwords while filming the story were ‘understatement,’ ‘subtlety of performances,’ ‘brevity of words’ and a grammar that resonated with that of global cinema. Alphonse Roy’s lensing and the mood never deviates from storytelling – the camera is a silent onlooker. I had to assure that it wasn’t ‘just another homage’ as some observers would love to carp, but an interpretation worthy of being the first feature film credited to Ray after his demise,” Mahadevan adds.
The cast includes veteran Paresh Rawal (“Dear Father”), Adil Hussain (who also has “Max, Min and Meowzaki” in Busan this year), Tannishtha Chatterjee (2019 Busan title “Roam Rome Mein”) and Revathi (“Aye Zindagi”).
“Satyajit Ray is one of the most important filmmakers of Indian and global cinema. Like so many people, I too grew up watching and revering his films. While I obviously never had the opportunity to work with him – to play a character created by him feels like a fulfilment of a dream,” Rawal told Variety. “The moment I read the story I was fascinated by it. The chance to play a Bengali character for the first time in my career was a big draw for me, as was the opportunity to act alongside such stellar cast members. Finally, it was the passion of the director, Ananth Mahadevan, and his take on the story and the world that drew me in.”
Mahadevan is also a noted actor with more than 100 film and TV credits. “Working with a director who understands where you are coming from as an actor is always helpful,” says Rawal. “Ananth has been acting for decades and that was evident in the way he tried to mould our performances while still giving us the freedom to make our own choices.”
Hussain adds: “Ananth is a brilliant actor, and when an actor turns a director, he understands the tiny little nuances that an actor faces while interpreting a character, so he’s very compassionate toward the actors. And he also has a very clear idea of what the graph of the role should be and the macro perspective of the film.”
The film is produced by Quest Films and billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Jio Studios, who were also initially drawn to the project because of Ray. Shobha Sant, head of content alliances at Jio Studios, told Variety: “The script was a great combination – deceptively simple and humorous yet deeply layered that was entertaining. When the cast fell into place with Ananth helming the film, we felt the energies were correct to make a good film. That’s all we wanted.”
“The Storyteller” is in competition for the Busan’s Kim Ji-seok award. Mahadevan’s previous film “Bittersweet” was also nominated for the award in 2020, but he couldn’t attend because of pandemic restrictions. “This year ‘The Storyteller’ provides me with a live screening and feedback opportunity from the audience and jury. And with a film celebrating Satyajit Ray, the excitement is very palpable,” says Mahadevan.
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