The cultural significance of the work of legendary independent filmmaker and versatile genius Satyajit Ray remains unchallenged. Though Ray’s filmography tells the story of perfecting the art of social realism, his foray into the genres of adventure and fantasy equals jewels set in an exquisite piece of ornament. In the early 1960s, he was in talks with Columbia Pictures for a highly anticipated sci-fi project, but it never materialized, and Ray documented the experience in his book Travails with the Alien. His interest in making fantasy films was given a fresh lease of life when a short story composed by his grandfather and author Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury caught his attention. Thus, in 1969, by altering and improvising upon the bare outlines of the story, the children’s fantasy adventure Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) came into being as a cinematic masterpiece.

The movie is a winsome exercise in both magic realism and musical comedy. It has won multiple national and international awards, and captivated children and grown-ups alike. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne was followed by Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds) in 1980, but Ray could only write the story for the third installment, Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (The Return of Goopy Bagha). It was directed by his son Sandip Ray who, incidentally, had urged his father back in the day to make movies for children.

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Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne revolves around two outcasts whose boundless enthusiasm for music cannot compensate for their utter inability to be any good at it; as a result, they are ostracised and shamed in their native villages. Goopy (Tapen Chatterjee) is an aspiring singer, whereas Bagha (Rabi Ghosh) considers dhol-playing the primary objective of his life. Their creative ambitions sans natural talent become a sore spot for the villagers, and the two are ultimately banished from their communities. Fortune takes a turn when their paths cross during one of their solitary wanderings, and they are accosted by Bhooter Raja, the king of ghosts, in a bamboo forest inhabited by spirits. Their music delights the spectral king, who emphasises the innate goodness and honesty of the despairing young men, and grants them the boon of three wish-fulfilments. Astonished at the rare opportunity of self-empowerment, Goopy and Bagha swiftly ask for the blessings of limitless food and clothing, and boundless travel. The king generously grants them the ability to procure food and clothing out of thin air, and the power of instantaneous transportation across the world.

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Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

For the third wish, they are hesitant about expressing their desire to practise music. Bhooter Raja accepts the suggestion with grace and bestows on them the magical power of literally transfixing the audience with their musical talent. The only stipulation is that for their powers to work, they must operate together. Goopy and Bagha form a pair of itinerant minstrels and, to establish a career for themselves, become court musicians in the kingdom of Shundi. This tale, which had begun in the pastorals of the erstwhile undivided Bengal, moves to the exotic locale of Rajasthan. The musicians eventually save their new domicile from a destructive war waged by the neighboring empire of Halla, uniting the two kingdoms in peace, and winning parts of the realm and its two princesses as rewards.

Underneath the splendor of fantasy and adventure, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is a complex artifact firmly grounded in social, economic and political concerns involving class, caste, gender and the role of art. The plenitude of subtexts lends itself to a diverse range of interpretations. Though some aspects of this film are determinedly culture-specific, the fabular quality of the narrative makes it relatable and pertinent. The social commentary is, in fact, the result of the transparency between the incidents in the film and their significance in a broader, realistic context, which cyclically fuels the tenor of fantasy.

Ray’s use of spectacle neither dislodges the narrative nor comes across as extraneous embellishment. The audacious imagination is a requirement for the conflicts to be resolved. Goopy and Bagha do not naturally inhabit this supernatural dimension, and they are acutely aware of the sudden transition. They know that they have stepped into the conventions of fantasy by chance, which has improved their position in society. Thus, Bagha enforces his desire for a lovely princess in the diegetic structure of the film. In fantasies, the hero often lives happily ever after with the princess; so, in order to become an authentic hero of a fantasy, Bagha demands such an ending for himself. The narrative must respond to the declaration of his rights.

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Speculative fiction inherently draws attention to its own artistry, and in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, art has a particularly crucial role to play. It reinforces this feature in several ways. The movie pivots on the gift of art and is ultimately about the revolutionary possibilities of the subaltern, who, when empowered with a creative consciousness, can wield serious social and political influence. Then, there is the classic binary of the good king and the evil king presented through the rulers of Shundi and Halla, who are ironically played by the same actor—the inimitable Santosh Dutta in a double role. It is quite a sight when the two kings, exact in physical appearance, resolve their differences towards the end (they are in fact estranged brothers). Moreover, the songs and dances in the movie beget a complex network of signification, which includes the subjective expressions of the protagonists, as well as commentaries on the narrative itself. Bhooter Raja speaks in the singsong tone of a humanoid, whereas Goopy and Bagha can sing themselves out of a sticky situation by freezing people with their music.


Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

The most ambitious representation of this feature is a nearly seven-minute-long sequence of dancing ghosts—an act-within-an-act, which halts the progress of the plot and engages the audience in a psychedelic show. It involves live-action, the silhouette effect of shadow puppeteering and the distinctive music of four different Indian percussion instruments. The sequence is a direct and exclusive tribute to the spectacle of fantasy for which space has been created within the narrative.

Ray also draws attention to the consequences of an amoral and noncommittal attitude to science. The villainous prime minister of Halla (Jahor Roy) commissions a magician/scientist/alchemist named Barfi (Harindranath Chattopadhyay) who has no qualms about sharing his scientific knowledge as long as his research continues to receive patronage. The prime minister misuses scientific inventions to consolidate his position. He keeps the otherwise genial king in a state of devilish frenzy by regularly administering a special concoction, and orders Barfi to invent tools that will help accomplish his ambitions of political expansion.

Goopy and Bagha are not larger-than-life heroes who perform tremendous feats with valor and glamour. Though their social status is immediately bettered by circumstances, intellectually and emotionally, they are still rustic amateurs who are intimidated by the enemy and bereft of grand strategies. Nonetheless, their courage and resourcefulness must be attributed to an innate understanding of power structures, which they have gained through the harrowing experiences of their lives.

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They are proletariat survivors, and survive they will the unequal war—not through brute force, but in a diplomatic way. They infiltrate the fortress of the enemy Halla king to observe and to gather information. Not having the strength to charge directly against the wicked minister, they strike at the foundation on which the kingdom stands—deprivation. The famished and exhausted soldiers of Halla are ill-fitted to successfully carry out the minister’s mission with their own blood and sweat. The simple but ingenious trick of making pots of sweets descend from the sky is enough to throw the whole phalanx into disarray. In this way, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is also a great pacifist film that addresses the issue of state-sponsored violence.

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

Several scholars have analyzed the interactions between Goopy and the coterie of elderly pundits through the prism of caste-based discrimination. Early in the film, Goopy is introduced in a freeze-frame that, along with his affection for music, points towards his caste identity. Though Bagha’s caste identity is not specified in the movie, going back to the source text, we know that it is similar to that of Goopy. Matters become more complicated because Goopy’s choice of genre is not the plebeian folk, but the elite ragas; he has procured a tanpura for practicing, which is a common accompaniment to classical music.

The desire to gain admittance in the noble durbar of classical music is an act of transgression for a rustic simpleton who belongs to the humble caste of grocers. Goopy asks for the valued opinion of the assembly of brahmin pundits who are symbolically playing dice under a banyan tree. Powerful arbitrators of cultural hegemony, their false validation is more acceptable to Goopy than the practical advice of his poor father who can neither encourage nor indulge him in his pursuit of music. For the brahmins, he is a figure of ridicule, and his impudent behavior must be corrected. They cruelly trick him into believing that he should approach the king of the land and perform for him. The ruler is irked by his raucous singing and banishes him with a humiliating show of public disgrace. Incidentally, the king of ghosts, who elevates Goopy and Bagha to an advantageous position, is a benevolent brahmadaitya and also a brahmin.

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Conspicuously missing in the film is the presence of women characters, except for the last scene where Goopy and Bagha are betrothed to two princesses. So, are the women just objects of the male gaze and prizes for their bravado? This has been read in many quarters as a denigration of the female, a view which I cannot endorse. The elision of the female and their later entrance in a particularly passive role, I believe, is deliberate and consequential. Goopy and Bagha used to have very little control over their lives, and their social advancement is purely accidental. Immediately after the promotion, Bagha is worried about securing their new-found position through matrimonial alliances with noble ladies. The urgency of self-preservation comes from the anxious memory of previous helplessness, which can only be quelled when they exercise authority, hence, the need to marry into royalty. Traditional fantasies are not widely known for being sensitive to gender equality; Bagha knows this and reminds us of it.

Moreover, the contentious scene itself gives an interesting insight. The two princesses barely look up through their veils due to coyness, and until they do so, the duo cannot approve of the match. This is the first conscious exercise of choice and authority by the two men. They speculate that the princesses are probably disinterested because of their rustic attire, and using their powers one more time, they change into magnificent clothing. In a movie shot in black and white, this is the only frame dazzling with colors. The camera, which was focusing on the women up to this point and building up the anticipation of revelation, instantly shifts to Goopy and Bagha, turning them into the object of the gaze. When the women lift their veils to look at the miraculous transformation, they are no longer subjected to the male gaze. The point of view is shifted and makes the men the spectacle. Thus, besides speaking for the marginalized with vehemence, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne whispers to us about the importance of gender as an aspect of the discourse around power and discrimination.

India may not be one of the leading producers of fantasy cinema, but the Goopy Bagha series is no less than ‘marvelous’. The generous upstarts in magical mojaris continue to be the favorite superheroes of Bengalis. Theirs is a tale of resilience and hope, which gives courage to a race that has braved many a storm.

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne Links – Wikipedia, IMDb

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