Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne : A Common Man’s Fantasy
Satyajit Ray was a legendary independent filmmaker and a versatile genius. The cultural significance of his extraordinary contribution towards cinema remains indispensable. Ray’s filmography tells the story of the perfection of the art of social realism, a testimony to his milieu. Yet his foray into the genres of detective thriller and fantasy is like jewels engraved into an inordinately crafted body of work. A Sci-Fi project with Columbia Pictures in the 1960s never came to be materialized and Ray documented the experience in his book Travails with The Alien. His unabated interest in fantasy found fruition when he was struck by a short story composed in 1915 by his grandfather and author Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury for Sandesh, the children’s illustrated literary magazine that Chowdhury published from Kolkata. Satyajit Ray created a children’s fantasy adventure by altering and improvising on the bare outlines drawn from the original short story. As the legend goes, The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha (titled in Bangla ‘Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne’ and hereafter called AGB) came into being in 1969.
The movie is a winsome exercise in magic realism and musical comedy. It won multiple national and international awards and has captivated children and grown-ups ever since. This was followed by The Kingdom of Diamonds (Hirak Rajar Deshe) in 1980 and Ray wrote the story for the third installment, The Return of Goopy Bagha (Goopy Bagha Phire Elo) in 1992. It was directed by his son Sandip Ray who back in the day had asked his father to make movies for children, willing him to create this wonderful series.
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Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne revolves around two dispossessed outcasts who have boundless enthusiasm in music but are ostracized and shamed in their native villages because they are incompetent at it. One of them is an aspiring classical singer while the other holds dhol-playing as the prime 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 native abode. Fortune takes a turn when Goopy Gyne (Tapen Chatterjee) and Bagha Byne (Rabi Ghosh), the singer and the dhol-player respectively, meet each other during their solitary wanderings and are accosted by Bhooter Raja, the king of ghosts, in a bamboo forest inhabited by spirits. Their music which had failed to impress humans delights the spectral king. Bhooter Raja emphasizes the innate goodness and honesty of the despairing young men and grants them the boon of three wish-fulfilments. Astonished at the rare, effortless opportunity of self-empowerment, Goopy and Bagha quickly ask for the blessings of abundant food and clothing and limitless travel. The king grants them the ability to procure delectable food out of thin air and instantaneous transportation across the world.
For the third, they diffidently express the desire of practicing music. Bhooter Raja graciously accepts the suggestion and allows them the power of literally transfixing their audience with musical proficiency. The only stipulation is that for their magical powers to work, they must operate together. Goopy and Bagha form a pair of itinerant minstrels and for future security become court musicians in the kingdom of Shundi. The tale which had originated in the pastorals of erstwhile undivided Bengal moves to exotic locales in 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 realms and the two princesses of the two lands in reward.
Underneath the splendor of fantasy and adventure, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is a complex artifact firmly grounded in social, economic and political concerns. It is a testament to issues such as class, caste, the role of art, and gender. The film lends itself to a diverse range of interpretations due to the plenitude of subtexts. Some aspects of this film determinedly culture-specific, but the fabular quality of the narrative makes it relatable and pertinent. The impact of the director’s social commentary is the result of the easy transparency between the incidences and their significance in a broader, realistic context which in fact fuels the tenor of the fantasy.
Ray’s use of spectacle neither disgorges the narrative nor comes across as extraneous embellishment. It is a requirement within the narrative, set for the conflicts to be resolved. The storytelling recreates history on the surface of an audacious imagination. Goopy and Bagha do not naturally inhabit this other dimension and they are 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. Bagha enforces his subjective desire for a suitable princess on the diegetic structure in the film because he knows that in fantasy the hero always lives happily ever after with the princess. He demands such an ending for himself and his partner and the narrative must fulfill that claim.
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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 theme in several ways. The movie pivots around the gift of art and is ultimately about the revolutionary possibility for the subaltern who empowered with creative consciousness can use it for actions that have serious social and political influence. Then there is an opposition of good king and the evil king presented through the two rulers of Shundi and Halla who are nevertheless 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 amicably unite towards the end (they are in fact brothers who had gone astray). Moreover, the deployment of song and dance in the movie begets a complex network of signification that includes subjective expression of the main characters and commentary on the narrative by them. While Bhooter Raja speaks in the singsong tone of a humanoid, Goopy and Bagha can sing themselves out of a sticky situation by freezing people with music.
The most ambitious representation of this feature is a nearly seven minutes sequence of dancing ghosts which is an act-within-an-act, halting the progress of the plot and engaging the audience in a psychedelic show that involves live-action, the silhouette effect of shadow puppeteering and the distinctive music of four different Indian percussion instruments. This is nothing short of a direct and exclusive tribute to the spectacle of fantasy for which space has been created within the narrative. Not to make it sound like an opposition between art and science and technology, but Ray brings awareness to the consequences of 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 expertise and knowledge as long as his autonomous laboratory and experimentations continue receiving patronage. The prime minister makes malfeasant use of the scientific invention to consolidate his own authority. He keeps the otherwise genial king in a state of devilish frenzy by regularly administering a special chemical compound and orders Barfi to work on other inventions that will help accomplish his political ambitions of expansion.
Goopy and Bagha are not larger-than-life heroes performing tremendous feats with valor and glamour. Though their position in terms of the class hierarchy is immediately bettered by circumstances, intellectually and emotionally they are still rustic amateurs, intimidated by the enemy and bereft of any significant strategy to swathe imminent attack. Their courage and resourcefulness nonetheless must be attributed to an innate understanding of the power structures, something they have learned through the harrowing experiences of their own lives.
They are proletariat survivors and survive they will the unequal war, not through brute force but diplomacy. They infiltrate the fortress of the enemy Halla king to observe and gather information. Since they are powerless to charge directly against the wicked minister, they strike at the foundation on which the hierarchy stands— deprivation. The famished and exhausted soldiers are ill-fitted to take the project of the minister to success through their own blood and sweat. The simple but ingenious solution 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 very ecosystem that produces state-sponsored hostilities.
Another praxis of analysis would look at the response of the coterie of elderly pundits towards Goopy‘s desire to master classical music as caste prejudice. Goopy is introduced in a freeze-frame that specifies his caste identity along with his affection for music. Bagha’s background is not specified in the movie but going back to the source text we know that his status is similar. The background score to the first scene, in keeping with the locale, is an earthy composition distinctly sounding the notes of ‘Ektara’, ‘Khanjani’, and flute which are instruments associated with folk music. But Goopy has procured a ‘Tanpura’, the regular accessory to classical music and his choice of genre is not the plebeian folk but the elite ragas.
For a rustic simpleton who belongs to the humble caste of grocers, the desire to gain admittance into the noble durbar of classical music is a transgression, not only in terms of class but also in caste politics. The assembly of the brahmins, symbolically playing dice, under the banyan tree, is sought by Goopy for their valued opinion. Powerful arbiters of cultural hegemony, their false validation is more acceptable than the practical advice of his father who cannot encourage him in his indulgence. For the brahmins, he is a figure of ridicule and his audacious behavior must be put in its proper place. 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. The king of ghosts is incidentally a Brahmadaitya, a benevolent brahmin ghost who restores Goopy and Bagha to an advantageous position.
Conspicuously missing in the film is the presence of female characters except for the last scene where Goopy and Bagha are betrothed to the two princesses. Are the women just objects of the male gaze and prizes for bravado? This has been construed in many quarters as a denigration of the female, a view I cannot endorse. The elision of the female and then their entrance in a specifically passive role is deliberate and consequential. Goopy and Bagha had very little control over their lives and their social upliftment is purely accidental. But immediately after the promotion, Bagha is worried about fortifying their new-found position through wedlock with a noble lady. The desire for self-preservation comes from the anxiety caused by the memory of previous helplessness that can ultimately be quelled when they can exercise authority in turn. Hence the need to marry into royalty. Traditional fantasy has never been sensitive to gender equality and Bagha knows this.
The contentious scene itself gives an insight. The two princesses barely look up through their veils due to natural coyness but until they do so the duo cannot approve of the match. This is the first conscious exercise of choice and authority by the two. They speculate that the princesses are probably disinterested because of their rustic attire and using their powers one last time, they change into the magnificent apparel. In a movie that is shot in black and white, this is the only frame in dazzling colors. The camera that was focused on the women creating anticipation of disclosure instantly shifts to the musicians and they become the object of the gaze. As the women simultaneously lift their veils to look at the miraculous transformation we can no longer say that the women have been subjected to the male gaze. The point of view is balanced out to include the men as part of the spectacle. This is a film that talks about marginalized and gender is an important aspect of the discourse around power and discrimination. Though not extensively discussed, the absence of female characters definitely points in this direction.
India may not be leading producers of fantasy cinema but the Goopy Bagha series is more than marvelous. The generous upstarts in magical mojari’s continue to be the favorite superheroes of Bangalis. Theirs is a tale of resilience and hope that gives courage to a race that has braved many a storm.