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Magic of Satyajit Ray: Naatak Performances

Bay Area theater group Naatak presents a collection of plays based on the talented filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s short stories reflecting the astonishing diversity of emotions and genres found in Ray’s fiction, writes Kamala Subramaniam, who directs the performances.

(Above): A Satyajit Ray illustration from his juvenile thriller Baksa Rahasya starring the wildly popular sleuth Feluda. Seen in the background: Feluda flanked on his left by his sidekick Topshe, the narrator of the thrillers.

For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” Hemingway is said to have called this six-word short story his best work to date. Arthur C. Clarke is famous for his “God said, ‘Cancel Program GENESIS.’ The universe ceased to exist.”

For generations now, auteurs have kept us riveted to their short stories without going into detail, yet leaving an extraordinary impression when done. Coming from a rather unimpressive middle-class background, I distinctly remember the day I felt rather proud of myself for having saved up enough to buy a roadside second-hand copy of Anton Chekhov’s “201 short stories.” If I had known then what I know now, I would also have scrambled to own the “Collected Short Stories” of Satyajit Ray.

Ray to me was always known as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. His subjects mostly centered on caste-ism, village politics, women empowerment and liberalization at a time when India was progressing in its socio-economic era. Little did I know that when I would read Ray’s short stories like “Anath Babu’s Terror,” a ghost hunter who finds himself being stalked by his terrifying quarry or “Bhuto,” a mercurial magician who resorts to tricks untold and unheard of to regain the pride lost to a puppet, I would terrorize myself into the wee hours of dawn. Ray has always had a fascination for the supernatural. It is debatable if ET was inspired by “Bonku Babu,” a mofussil schoolteacher who is visited one night by a friendly and somewhat awkward alien. Growing up in a country of gods and reverence to everything sacred and religious, reading “Khagam,” the story of a sadhu who could transform a man into a snake, was spine chilling.

While Ray’s supernatural stories have been a favorite, his range of topics reach out to a six-year-old as it would a sixty-year old. His short stories span the genres of, but are not limited to, horror, thriller, science fiction, social issues, detective mysteries and comedies. A few examples are Feluda, Professor Shanku, Patol Babu Filmstar and Pikoo’s Diary. Feluda, a sleuth and Professor Shanku, a scientist, are two characters created by Ray that worked its way from short stories to television series to finally movies. Patol Babu Filmstar is the story of an aging amateur actor for whom a walk-on part in a movie is a ticket to stardom. An old, bald and stout man who once in his youth performed on stage and then settled to live an average life is suddenly enthralled with this offer and gives it his very best. Patol Babu is humorous, endearing and appealing. Pikoo’s diary is the story of a young boy who maintains a diary and the entries reveal to the reader an intricate web of emotions and tangled events in the boy’s life.

(Above): A scene from, “Patol Babu Filmstar and Other Plays,” a collection of brief plays by Naatak based on the short stories of filmmaker Satyajit Ray. [Swagato Basumallick photo]

What is also fascinating about Ray’s writing style is that by giving subtle references to issues that plague the common man, he is able to recreate an India from a common man’s perspective to endear us to his stories without delving into details. The puppet in Bhuto often makes jokes about Calcutta’s mismanaged metro rail. Mr. Eccentric complains about load-shedding. Pikoo’s mom in Pikoo’s Dairy needs to find ways to rendezvous with her lover because Pikoo’s school has shut down possibly due to an implied Naxalite movement.

(Above): A Satyajit Ray illustration from his juvenile thriller Baksa Rahasya starring the wildly popular sleuth Feluda. Topshe, Feluda’s sidekick and the narrator, is seen on the left, with Feluda on the right.

When my fellow Naatak members Sumit Guha, Shubhra Prakash and I brainstormed about doing short-plays for Naatak, Ray stories were an obvious choice due to the afore-mentioned points coupled with the fact that Ray’s being an Academy Award winner would pique the interest of more than just the Indian diaspora. From its inception as Naatak’s 31st production and throughout its journey to date, I have spoken to many people, Indian and non-Indian, Bengali and non-Bengali and it has been very obvious that Satyajit Ray is known more for his films, and aptly so for a lifetime achievement Academy Award winner. This journey to me hence is a process of rediscovering Ray through his short stories and sharing it with our audience. Please follow our journey at: http://rayrediscovered.blogspot.com/

The plays have been adapted for the stage from the short stories. The plays span different genres to cater to everyone’s taste. While short plays have their challenges of replacing sets and limited time for character development, they are distinct and intriguing in their own fashion. It delivers a crisp and brilliant end to each play and the audience is left entertained with multiple stories. The production team, lead by producer Juhi Mohan, is making possible by creating sets, costumes, props so the audience would be transported to an India of the seventies where the slum characters of the night practicing magic and ventriloquism intermingle with the rich whose relationships are complex. An India of the supernatural, where on one hand renowned magicians and their tricks are spoken of in deferential whispers and on the other, an old man who claims he can see death is ridiculed. And finally an India where a poor, old, balding man is given a role in a big production, and finds his mental equilbrium amidst the challenge both to his acting acumen and dignity.

(Above): Satyajit Ray, while recognized worldwide for his extraordinary gifts as a filmmaker, was also the author of wildly popular juvenile fiction, an illustrator, calligrapher, graphic artist and composer.

Watch our sets as they seamlessly transform from the dark to the lively and meet our characters, sinister and hilarious by turn. A perfect evening to have terror served with a pinch of complex emotions, amid a web of tangled events and leavened with dollops of humor.

No matter which play is a favorite, everyone will go home knowing that in each one of them, there is a little bit of “Patol Babu Filmstar.”

Naatak’s 31’st production

“Patol Babu Filmstar and Other Plays”
Based on short stories by Satyajit Ray

Nov. 1, 6 and 7, Cubberley Theater,
Palo Alto, Calif.

Nov. 15 Intersection of Arts, San Francisco.


Kamala Subramaniam was raised in Bangalore. She has been involved in theater in Bangalore, India and Raleigh, N.C. A software professional, she lives in Sunnyvale, Calif., and has been involved with Naatak since 2006.


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