“Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon […] There is nothing irrelevant or haphazard in his cinematographic technique. In that lies the secret of its excellence.”

-Akira Kurosawa
Satyajit Ray’s profound humanism is what characterises his best works and puts him among the greats of Indian and world cinema. The list of accolades he has received too is quite long and includes an honorary Academy Award which he accepted in absentia in 1992.
Source: www.satyajitray.org

Known for his realistic films that showcased the plight of the everyman/woman, both rural (Apu trilogy) and urban (Mahanagar), he has made an indelible mark on the way the world receives cinema.

The film went on to win two national awards (best feature and best direction), accolades at Tokyo and Adelaide and a Golden Bear nomination at Berlin.

The film we are celebrating today however, happens to be his strangest contribution to cinema, a fairy-tale and what one of its stars, Robi Ghosh called “India’s first musical”: Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969).

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Satyajit Ray composed the music, designed the costumes, wrote lyrics and the screenplay and directed it.

Despite the hesitations on the part of producers before its release, its effect was very well-pronounced. In a letter to his biographer, Marie Seton, Ray wrote about how in six months after the film’s release every child in the city knew all the words of the songs in the film.

Ray’s technique is something similar to what lovers of literature call magic realism: He takes very common elements, political and social and puts them in far-fetched, unbelievable, “fairy” contexts.

The film went on to win two national awards (best feature and best direction), accolades at Tokyo and Adelaide and a Golden Bear nomination at Berlin.

Based on his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s creations, the film is more than the fairy-tale-children’s-short-story that once appeared in Sandesh. This is because Ray uses the full power of his cinematic art to create something that written literature simply cannot produce.

Ray’s technique is something similar to what lovers of literature call magic realism: He takes very common elements, political and social and puts them in far-fetched, unbelievable, “fairy” contexts.

The act of watching a film like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne becomes more rewarding when the audience gets to decode its symbols and truths out of the fairy tale.

As a result, harsh truths and realities become digestible because they are part of a story that is colourful, detailed, vivid, but most importantly, not real: like a fable or a bedtime story.

The act of watching a film like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne becomes more rewarding when the audience gets to decode its symbols and truths out of the fairy tale. The decoding can only be achieved by concentrating on the minutest of details in the film’s narrative for the devil truly lies in the details in this case.

Considering the film a critique of society like most films of Ray, it is those same embedded details in it that help the reader decode the “real” truth from the seemingly unreal fairy-tale. It is a process of unmasking or unveiling.

Source: www.satyajitray.org

Now why make a fairy-tale in the first place?

Because, the film was made at the request of Sandip, Ray’s son who wanted to watch something lighter. Of course, when it comes to someone as dextrous as Satyajit Ray, the “something lighter”, too has bitter, political and social truths buried in it; just hidden enough to seem invisible.

The story becomes a political statement about the defeat of tyranny by simple will and naively innocent intentions in the most unexpected of heroes.

So how does Ray achieve this obscuring of symbols and truths? How does he make the film “fairy”?

Ray uses a number of devices, the most characteristic being the sheer lyrical nature of dialogue. It is not just the rhyming, but the sing-song quality of the conversation in the films. This enabled the film to have that basic archetypal character as well; after all, song is the most primal of methods of human interaction.

On-the-face political statements are a way but stronger statements are made when they are masked as something almost playful in nature. Combined with that, music heals and sweetens the doze of the bitter medicine and needless to say, Ray is careful enough to compose upbeat and cheerful tunes to drive his lesson home.

The protagonists are rural and uneducated: their language too, is simple, unassuming and child-like hence.

There is strength in friendship and togetherness: Goopy is from a village called “Amloki” (Amla) and Bagha hails from the neighbouring hamlet of “Haritoki”; the names of two medicinal fruits, taken together as part of the ‘Triphala’ of Indian medicine. They make up two inseparable parts of the same whole: Gupi embodying the clearer-headed artist, while Bagha being the more materialistic and pragmatic side.

Finally their destinies too are alloyed together in the famous ghost sequence of the film which happens to be the greatest addition of Ray to his grandfather’s short story.

Ray creates a separate tiered society of the ghosts who reveal themselves to the protagonists and through themselves a gross parody of Hindu societal hierarchy.

Source: www.satyajitray.org

The revelation is a six and half minute long story in itself, told as a unique film-within-a-film: In a time when there was neither VFX nor CGI, Ray successfully created a minimalist world for the ghosts themselves, where they “perform” their lives out as Goopy, Bagha and of course their ruler the famous Bhooter Raja watch.

The sequence besides having striking imagery and rich metaphors, has some of the best musical compositions of Ray and sees the use of unconventional Indian instruments like mridangams, ghatams, musrings and ganjras.
The sequence includes the use of real actors and shadow puppets as ghosts.

The boon granting king manifests himself out of thin air within a pentangle and is a jovial and benevolent ruler it would appear. He is a “Brohmo-doitto”, quite literally a Brahmin demon or a Brahmin who had died in an accident or committed suicide as evidenced by the sacred thread still on his body.

Poverty is the root of all social and political evils; when people are impoverished, they will do anything to change their condition. And more often than not, the “anything” is bowing in obedience to a leader who uses patriotism/imperialism to gain their confidence. It is nothing but a form of cruelty, when people are just given an excuse like war to justify their sufferings.

As pointed out above, the ghosts have four distinct layers in their class structure.

The first class would be dancers who symbolise art as a whole, the second, warriors; the third class would be the rich bourgeoisie class including traders and rich Brahmins alike and the fourth and most conspicuous class would be the Europeans.

The first class showcase some of the oldest classical dance forms of India. They are shown as fully formed and clothed dancers with masks while the entire scene is shrouded as if shot under a thin layer of water.
The second class too, according to the schema, showcase war marches and formations. The ghosts are shown to carry what would appear to be weaponry. The fact that these two layers are depicted in the shadowy and blurry way they are, would suggest these two classes/occupations/social aspects, art and war to be more ancient than the rest of the things depicted, beyond perfect recollection.

The colour scheme of these two particular “layers” of ghosts is reversed: the dancers being white spirits on a black backdrop, while the warriors being black, standing out on a white background.

The third layer reveals a white background and some pot-bellied gentlemen ghosts, Indian “babus”, smoking hookah, while talking and debating in a leisurely way. They are grotesque parodies themselves as is evidenced by their very appearance: wobbly and almost inhumanly round, bloated by their riches and lavish lifestyle.
A very topical issue is depicted here: the arrival of the Christian gospel. They are seen to be perplexed by it and quite vexed too.

The fourth and most unmistakable layer of ‘ghost society’ is the European one or the sahibs. Ray goes to immense lengths to portray each in a subtly different way than the other. They curtsy to each other, duel and of course drink and walk around tipsily.

What unites all of these individuals over space and time is death (of course) but also human weakness: the fact that all of them died because of conflict in real life, and were killed by a fellow human being over disagreement. They re-enact their fates in front of the protagonists, the suggestion being that life is cyclical, and human beings are so stagnant that they have to make themselves and their fellow human beings go through the same destruction over and over again.

Source: www.satyajitray.org

Of course, the protagonists learn their lesson from this history quite well.

The king of the ghosts (played by Prasad Mukherjee and voiced by Satyajit Ray) is pleased with the protagonists simply because they are “good boys” who hate violence and have been on the butt end of it all their lives, being humiliated and exiled from their villages because of their cacophony in the name of music. He grants them three wishes of their own choice.

They choose: never having to worry about food and clothing ever again, getting to travel the country and to please everyone with their music.

The king grants them better versions of all three wishes: he gives them the ability to get whatever food they wish to eat just by clapping each other’s hand (a high five if you will), magic boots that can transport them anywhere they want if they wear them and again, clap and, the power to bewitch and spell-bind everyone (literally) with their music.

This is how the destinies of Goopy and Bagha are joined together permanently in friendship: After all, one cannot clap with only one hand.

So after a scrumptious meal of ghost-blessed food and trying out their newly received musical talents, the two set out “to sing, be famous and marry princesses”.

Expectedly, the human kingdoms in this film are in chaos while the ghosts live in peace and joy.

Source: www.satyajitray.org

Despite being ruled by brothers the kingdoms of Shundi and Halla are at loggerheads because of one man: the Prime minister of Halla (Jahar Roy). Conspiring with the crooked old wizard, Borfi (who can just say “phosh”) he makes the people of both kingdoms mute by drugging them.

While the citizens of Halla are hungry and poor besides mute, the people of Shundi whose king is a jovial and benevolent father-like ruler (Santosh Dutta) are peaceful, striving, generous and happy despite being mute. The ruler of Halla (Santosh Dutta) is a childish and quite foolish ruler who is drugged into becoming a violent mirror image of his self; the similarities with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are too obvious to miss.

The Prime minister of Halla wants to fuse both kingdoms into an empire for himself. He sends a spy (Chinmoy Roy) to Shundi to gather intelligence, who informs him: “(In Shundi) there are crops in the fields, fruits, flowers, birds in the trees, there’s peace, happiness and laughter” (a state totally opposite to Halla).

Of course the connotations are poignant for the impoverished spy who seems preoccupied with the luxurious food the Prime minister is gorging on, but for the minister himself, they are simple: Shundi is not prepared for war. It does not have armies, war machines, camels, elephants etc; strike the anvil while it’s hot. Time too is of the essence because Borfi has only three days to live.

After winning the music contest organised by the king of Shundi, Gupi and Bagha are informed about the situation: The king of Halla who has been drugged into a state of violence thanks to Borfi’s potion, declares war on his twin brother, the king of Shundi. (The song sequence of the king of Halla declaring “Halla goes to war!” is one of the best in the entire film.)

The duo decide to act and act fast. They clap their way to Halla and after realising the real state of affairs, decide to stop the war in their signature way.

When the armies of Halla, complete with camels and soldiers and horses start marching, the duo sing and stop them in their tracks. Ray focusses on the facial expressions of individual soldiers to show their rough, hungry and impoverished faces, with no joy or desire to fight; the message is clear, they just want food in their bellies.

And who better to provide said food, but the ones blessed by the king of ghosts, himself?

Clapping, they make pots full of ‘roshogolla’ shower from the heavens. Needless to say the poor hungry soldiers go berserk.

They abandon their weapons and formations to pounce on the delectable sweetmeat. In fact even the king, who now is lucid, reaches for a pot and doesn’t let go, stuffing his mouth with food while the stampede goes on.

The minister is the only one who tries to get the war back on track but it’s too late. Gupi and Bagha abduct the king of Halla back to Shundi where he ends up confessing to being drugged into doing the horrible things he did.

Source: www.satyajitray.org

Moreover earlier, the duo had secured the antidote to the potion that muted the populace of the two kingdoms from the wizard, and now using a fire, create a smoke of the same to cure the people of their predicament. The sounds that were lost to the kings’ ears for twenty years are now heard again.

The film ends with the marriage of the duo with the daughters of the two kings, Monimala and Muktamala and fulfilling their quest.

The Shundi-Halla episode is part of the larger political statement that the film makes. The inner message is similar to something Orwell shows in his 1984: a non-existent figure “ruling” while the rich and powerful exploit the common people for their selfish needs, silencing their demands for basic amenities like food.

Poverty is the root of all social and political evils; when people are impoverished, they will do anything to change their condition. And more often than not, the “anything” is bowing in obedience to a leader who uses patriotism/imperialism to gain their confidence. It is nothing but a form of cruelty, when people are just given an excuse like war to justify their sufferings.

The state of affairs at Halla then become a reflection of so many regimes like the Nazi government in Germany, fresh out of World War I: its confidence shattered and its economy ruined. It took very little propaganda for someone like Hitler to cease power, who simply used the excuse of war and conquest to continue oppressing the common man.

The pacifism of Shundi too becomes a model for a failed nanny state, underprepared for war and invasion.

Ray uses naiveté to expose the myopia that the common man suffers from, which is the refusal to accept realities as they are. It is no secret that every nation in existence has a lower social strata that dreams and aspires but falls short when it comes to means that they require to achieve them.

If only given the ability, the same class can cause the upheaval needed for a peaceful settling of differences. Gupi and Bagha, stand in for this class.

Source: www.satyajitray.org

On-the-face political statements are a way but stronger statements are made when they are masked as something almost playful in nature. Combined with that, music heals and sweetens the doze of the bitter medicine and needless to say, Ray is careful enough to compose upbeat and cheerful tunes to drive his lesson home.

Hence what lends the film an unforgettable, poetic quality is the fact despite being strongly rooted in childish wordplay and plot, it transcends the boundaries of borders and time to tell a story that is as old as civilisation itself: that of war and the hero’s victory, making it a film that evokes different readings from the same audience over time, but remaining admirable nonetheless.

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