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Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne: Satyajit Ray's multi-genre masterpiece

In Satyajit Ray's Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, which completes half a century today, fantasy is the form of the film as well as its subject and also serves to get several messages across.

Rabi Ghosh and Tapen Chatterjee

Shoma A Chatterji

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, which was premiered in Calcutta on 8 May 1969, can easily be interpreted as a film addressed at children. All the features that define entertainment for children, drawn from conventional fairy tales, are used prominently, things like magic, kings, castles, princesses, war, kingdoms, even a ghost king and a ghost dance.

But Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne can also be interpreted as a powerful socio-political statement focusing on hunger, conflict and its futility, greed and obsession with power leading to corruption, and the power of music to promote social change and peace.

Story in brief

Goopy Gyne is the son of a poor grocer and peasant in Amloki village who dreams of becoming a great singer. Sadly, he sings completely out of tune and beat. He is also naïve. When the village elders ask him to sing outside the king’s palace at dawn, he does it. The king orders his men to seat Goopy on a donkey and drive him out of the village. His father wipes a tear and goes back to his hut.

On the way, Goopy meets the drummer Bagha Byne, an orphan from Hortuki village who is trying to find a livelihood. They walk into the jungle nearby. A ghost king appears in the night through a well-lit twinkling star and offers them three boons. The first thing the two wannabe musicians ask for is that they should get any kind of food and clothing they need. The second boon they seek is that they should be able to travel whenever and wherever they wish. The third is that they should be able to mesmerize people with their song and drums.

The ghost king gifts them a pair of magic shoes which each must wear to be able to travel anywhere they choose. For the other two boons, the two must clap together with one hand each; in today's lingo, give each other a high-five.

Goopy and Bagha, with their magical music, the lovely food they now have ready access to, and the freedom to travel whenever, wherever, set out on an adventure through two kingdoms and end up solving their problems with their music and magic. In return for their help, the kings of Shundy and Halla give them their daughters Monimala and Muktamala in marriage.

Many talents

The film was shot in 1968 on a shoestring budget of Rs6 lakh. The film is based on the two characters, Goopy and Bagha, who first appeared in Sandesh, a magazine for children, in 1915 with illustrations by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Roy Choudhury. The film ran for 51 straight weeks, a record for any Bengali film at the time.

The film marked several firsts for Satyajit Ray. It was his first and, perhaps, only fantasy film that used animation, surrealistic images, shadow play and special effects in its cinematography, a challenge for his cameraman Soumendu Roy.

One of Ray's sketches for the film. Courtesy: The Ray Society, Kolkata

Ray himself wrote the lyrics, dialogue, script and music for the entire film. He gave a big break to classical vocalist Anup Ghoshal who lent his voice for all the songs lip-synched by Goopy (Tapen Chatterjee) in the film. He also cast some veteran actors who had almost faded from public memory, such as Jahar Roy and Nripati Chatterjee, who were famed for their gift of the comic and for character roles.

The three kings

The three kings in the film represent the graded presence and/or absence of despotic leadership. The king of Halla is imprisoned in his own palace by his evil prime minister who dreams of killing him and taking over his kingdom. The king is fed some poisonous potion from time to time which spurs him on to polarized behaviour patterns. But all he wants in his lucid moments is “holiday”, meaning freedom. He is, therefore, just a titular head.

The prime minister, who keeps the subjects and his entire staff hungry, is a despot who enjoys torturing people. When the war is “killed” by Goopy and Bagha with their magical shower of sweets and food in extra-large sizes, we see the king of Halla stepping out of the palace and sprinting down the steps crying “chhuti, chhuti,’chhuti”, meaning 'free', like a child suddenly let out from captivity.

The king of Shundi harbours Utopian thoughts. His subjects have all become mute owing to a deadly plague that devastated the kingdom, so he, too, prefers to remain silent. In the city, we find Hindus and Muslims prancing merrily together, their faiths indicated by their headgear and clothes.

The king does not believe in war, so Shundi has no army, no commander-in-chief, no camels, horses or weapons of war. This offers an incredible alternative to peace. How can a king fight if there is no line of defence?

The king of ghosts is presented in complete darkness with twinkling lights and a different voice as if emanating from a machine. He is a generous fellow and begins to like the two simpletons who have neither home nor hearth or food.

The representation of the three kings dispels the common idea that monarchy is always dictatorial and autocratic. A king’s love for and feeling of oneness with his subjects can make monarchy also an egalitarian administration.

Dance of ghosts

The ghost king’s entry is preceded by a famous “dance of ghosts” picturized with special effects, paper cutout figures, masks, shadows and so on. The dance of ghosts is a celluloid representation of the division of society into caste, class and economic strata since ancient times. One can easily devote an entire chapter to the ghost dance for its political ramifications that will never get outdated.

The ghosts of the first group are shadowy, somewhat fluid and shapeless, and we assume these belong to the lowest class in society — farmers, workers, ordinary people. The second group comprises people with huge bellies and different costumes and one can identify the zamindar, the moneylender, the capitalist, the lawyer, the religious leader and the judge. Their bellies are counterpointed by the skeletal shadows of the plebeians whose food this class has appropriated and fattened itself on.

The final layer comprises the colonial rulers walking with their backs sharply arched, suited and booted, wearing hats, carrying walking sticks, with lots of attitude in their gait and their body language.

Initially, these are all grouped separately and seem to be in harmony. But when they reappear, the groups begin to fight among themselves, even going to the extent of killing.

The animation, shadow play, the dance itself and the wonderful music that goes with it — minus song — with a lot of percussion instruments is one of the high points of the film that remains etched in memory.

The song that Goopy sings and Bagha plays the drum to, 'Bhooter Raja Dilo Bor', meaning the king of ghosts gave us a boon, describes in detail the different kinds of ghosts there can be such as fat, thin, straight, crooked, tall, short, lame, blind, simple and strange, which is a microcosm of humanity as it sustains across time and space.

Music and songs

The film has 10 songs with lyrics by Ray. Most of them are immortalized by virtue of rhythm, melody, performance, picturization and positioning. 'Dekho Re Nayan Mile Jogoter Bahar' is the opening song at the beginning of the film, out of tune. Then, after the three boons by the king of ghosts, when Goopy tries to test the boon by singing the same song, he renders it beautifully.

Each song defines the mood of the situation and special attention has been paid to the lyrics in terms of the words and also in terms of the beats and orchestra used.

'Maharaja Tomare Selam' is the song Goopy sings to the accompaniment of Bagha’s dhol, paying respects to the king and also introducing themselves, singing the praises of Bengal and the Bengali language, which is the only language they know.

'O Mantri Moshai Sadajontri Moshai' is a tongue-in-cheek song directed at the evil prime minister of Halla which accuses him of being a conspirator and pokes fun at him through cleverly worded lyrics, ending each line with tobe thaak (let it be).

'Halla Choleche Juddhey' is sung by the prime minister himself along with Kamu Mukherjee, an old-time actor, which announces that Halla is going to war with Shundi.

'Orey Baba Dekho Cheye Koto Sena Cholechhey Somore' (Just see what a huge army is going to the battlefield) and the camera takes a panning long shot of tired camels lying in wait for orders, skeletal soldiers who have not eaten for days waiting for the bugle to blow. This is also an irony because the “many soldiers” have neither the will nor the strength to fight a war that was lost to hunger even before it began.

Every song has a specific role to play, backed by alternately humorous and double-entendre lyrics with beats to match.

No role for women

In spite of its powerful socio-political statements on hunger, music and exploitation of the powerless by the powerful (the subjects and the king), Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne offers a patriarchal slant on the image of women. The film has no female characters, not even a queen or a mother.

The two princesses who appear at the end of the film being “shown” to the two bridegrooms Goopy and Bagha, who demand a closer look, have their faces covered by veils. The two beautiful, doll-like princesses with faces carved as if of stone do not utter a single word. Moreover, they are made to look, dress and behave like dumb mannequins whose respective fathers are prepared to “give them away” to Goopy and Bagha. The girls are never asked if they would like to be wed to two simple, semi-literate villagers.

All this makes it appear as if the sole aim of Goopy and Bagha was to win the hand of a princess and their adventures were all for some self-gaining fun. This undercuts the political statement the film so beautifully makes.

Ray might have explained this as approximating with the time the film is placed in. But considering the other things that are as contemporary as they are ancient, such as a cruel king keeping his subjects hungry, or the fantasy of the king of ghosts, the absence of a female voice is striking indeed.

Fantastic fantasy

The film won the Best Feature and Best Direction awards at the 16th National Film awards, and went on to win many international awards as well. The cast is marvellous to watch and it is difficult to take your eyes away from the screen. Tapen Chattterjee as Goopy, probably a new find, and established actor Rabi Ghosh along with Santosh Dutta in the double role of the twin kings of Halla and Shundi are unbelievably authentic in their performances without a hint of artifice. The same goes for Harindranath Chattopadhyay as the magician Borfi, Jahar Roy as the evil prime minister and the skinny and hungry Chinmoy Roy as Halla’s messenger.

Soumendu Roy’s magical cinematography, Dulal Dutta’s excellent editing and Bansi Chandragupta’s art direction put the creamy layer of frosting on an unforgettable cake which you love to keep watching but are afraid to take a bite from.

Through Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Satyajit Ray used fantasy as medium, message, metaphor and more. Fantasy forms the lingua franca of the film and also the subject, in a way. Fantasy also functions as agency to get several messages across. You cannot place the film in any specific genre. It is a musical, a satire, a farce, a fantasy, a children’s film and a powerful political essay, depending on how you react to it.