Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne: This Satyajit Ray classic was made for his 13-year-old son

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Jul,09 2017 12:21 57 IST

Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

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When his 13-year-old son complained to his father one day that he only made films for adults, Satyajit Ray decided to make a fun-filled adventure fantasy film for children. Finding the right story was the least of his problems, because Ray came from a family of illustrious writers of children’s literature. Of the abundant treasure trove of such stories that his ancestors — both male and female ones — had left behind as legacy, Ray chose one written by his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, who was himself one of the pioneers of the cultural renaissance of Bengal.

This story, a fantasy of sorts, spoke about the amazing adventures of two simpletons from two adjacent villages — Goopy, who liked to sing, and Bagha, who liked to play the dhol. But as luck would have it, despite their keen interest in singing and playing the dhol, nature had not bestowed either of them with the gift of music. When Goopy and Bagha rile the King with their tone-deaf cacophony, they are exiled from their respective villages and they meet in the middle of a dense forest, where they stumble upon the King of Ghosts, who gives them three magic boons. The first would allow them to ask for any food or any dress whenever they liked. With the second, they could wear a pair of magic shoes and travel anywhere they liked in the blink of an eye. But in the most important one, the third boon, they were given the gift of music, so much so that they would be able to enthral anyone with their music. Armed with these three magic boons, they reach the kingdom of Shundi, only to learn that the King of Halla has declared war against his own brother, the peace-loving King of Shundi. Goopy and Bagha take great risks to visit Halla as spies, and stop the war in the nick of time.

Still from Satyajit Ray's Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

Still from Satyajit Ray's Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

As discussed before, the story was the least of Ray’s problems — it was always there, within his reach. But right from the outset, Ray knew that unlike the films he had made so far, this one would cost a great deal of money to make. His regular financiers backed out, and Ray spent the better half of a year looking for producers, finally finding one, that too on the condition that he would have to make the entire film in black and white to save costs. Not one to back down so easily, Ray did make the film, and it went on to become one of the biggest commercial successes not only of his career, but of the Bengali film industry as well. Because like his forefathers, Ray too knew that a good children’s story is not enjoyed only by children, but by adults as well.

In Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Ray introduced certain subtle themes and messages which rendered the film something more than just a fantasy, it became a strong socio-political commentary on the notion of war and peace. For instance, when the evil Prime Minister of Halla sends his spy to find out what preparations the people of Shundi had for the eventuality of war, the spy comes back to report that they had none. On being asked, what did  they have instead, the spy reports in a dreamy voice — ‘They have fruits and flowers in the trees, they have crops in their fields, birds singing on the branches, people living happily…’ Then again, when Goopy and Bagha are captured in Halla and thrown in prison, their magic shoes not with them anymore, they feel powerless and face death behind the bars. But music? How does one cage music? In the middle of the night, Goopy sings a soulful number, his voice soaring like a free bird over the palace, finally reaching the ears of the King with a simple message — ‘If only once he would come down from his throne and enjoy the cool breeze in the fields, he would find his peace, he would find his peace, he would find his peace.

One of the most fascinating things about this film is the recurring theme of simplicity. On meeting the King of Ghosts, for instance, when Goopy and Bagha could have asked for all the wealth in the world, they merely ask that their basic needs be fulfilled instead, because being simple village idiots, even the little that they have is good enough for them. Technically too, the film was brilliant, with an epic six-and-a-half minute dance of the ghosts that Goopy and Bagha witness in the middle of the forest. The piece is a combination of Indian classical dances, with four different categories of ghosts — the warriors, the sahibs, the priests and the common man warring among themselves, finally killing each other off. Ray makes a strong social commentary based on the caste system and shows us that even the most powerful certainty in the world — death itself — is weak and futile against the insatiable hunger for war.

The film’s casting was also rather interesting, when Ray decided to cast Jahar Roy, a leading comedian in Bengali cinema, as the principal antagonist — the evil Prime Minister of Halla. Casting Santosh Dutta, another popular comedian, as both the King of Shundi and the King of Halla, and making several actors play multiple roles in the film are also interesting casting decisions — perhaps taken to save costs. Lauded widely in Bengal and India, and met with great critical and commercial acclaim outside India as well (particularly in Rome), one of the foreign criticisms of the film was that with a running time of 132 minutes, it was too long for a children’s film. There may be some truth in that.

But no discussion on Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is complete without saying a few words about its music. Ray had always been known to use Indian music, Indian instruments, Indian leitmotifs and themes in scoring his films. But never before had he used music so effectively to portray the mood of a story. The music of the film is light, joyous and gives a sense of cheerfulness without even once being loud or lurid. Like the story, the music too is simple, stripped down to its bare minimum, and dwelling only on the happy notes, bearing a sense of hope and love and everything that’s beautiful. It is, if you were to listen to it carefully, exactly the sort of music that a father would compose for his child.

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include ‘14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray’, and his original works include the mystery novels ‘Patang’, ‘Penumbra’ and ‘Here Falls The Shadow’.