Hirak Rajar Deshe: Satyajit Ray's satire against state oppression is one of Indian cinema's best
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.
In 1968, Satyajit Ray made a children’s film titled Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, based on a short story written by his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury. The film was about the adventures of two village idiots — Goopy, who loves to sing, and Bagha, who loves to play the dhol. Blessed with three magic boons by the King of Ghosts, Goopy and Bagha successfully stop a war between two kingdoms — Shundi and Halla. The film went on to become one of the biggest commercial successes of Bengali cinema, and the characters of Goopy and Bagha became so popular that the inevitable happened. Twelve years after the film was made, Ray decided to follow it up with a sequel — Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds).
In Hirak Rajar Deshe, Goopy and Bagha, who are now the sons-in-law of the kings of Shundi and Halla, are invited to the annual festival of the kingdom of diamonds to sing and play the dhol, and enthral the king and his guests with their music. When the duo reaches the kingdom, they learn a dark secret — that beneath the surface of apparent warmth and generosity, the king of Hirak is in fact an evil man, who exploits his subjects ruthlessly. Most of the poor subjects have no other option but to work day in and day out in the farms and the mines, only to hand over all their income to the king in taxes. The ones who protest are mercilessly subdued with the help of a brainwashing device that the royal scientist has invented. When a spirited and fearless teacher rises in rebellion against the king, Goopy and Bagha join forces with him, aiding him with the help of their magic to pull the evil king down from his throne.
As with his previous film with Goopy and Bagha, in Hirak Rajar Deshe too, not once does Ray artificially sweeten the message of the film to make it suitable for children. In fact, he makes the best use of the opportunity to pass on a very important message to children — that the only war worth fighting is the one against oppression — a war that is bloodless, and yet one that aims to dethrone the greatest enemy of the common man. The film’s biggest asset is that it does not treat its primary audience — the children — as any less intelligent than adults. It makes them understand the difference between right and wrong and urges them to rise in rebellion when the need arises.
Just like the first Goopy Bagha film, this one too relies heavily on music, and keeping his audience in mind, Ray’s compositions are simple, melodious and extremely pleasing to the ears. One of the most beautiful songs in the film is titled ‘E je drishyo dekhi onnyo’ (These strange sights I see). It is sung when Goopy and Bagha venture into the forest, admiring the ancient trees towering over their heads with awe and wonder. In another song titled ‘Paaye pori baagh mama’ (We bow to thee, o king of beasts), based purely on Indian classical ragas, Goopy and Bagha try to placate a full-grown and ferocious Bengal tiger guarding the keys to the palace’s treasury, giving rise to a hilarious situation of confusion and tension. But perhaps the best song of the film comes right at the end, during the climax, when the evil king, along with his posse of ministers are rounded up by Goopy and Bagha in the royal laboratory, to be ‘taught’ the lesson of their lives. Titled ‘Nohi jontro’ (I am not a machine), it is an excellent protest song, and it denudes the king and lays bare his incapacity to look after the welfare of his people, before throwing him into the brainwashing machine that he had himself commissioned.
Another salient feature of the film is that almost all its characters speak in rhyme, with the exception of the rebellious teacher Udayan Pandit — perhaps symbolising that he is different from the rest of the lot. Despite all its charms though, the film is not without its flaws. The editing is sloppy on not one but several scenes, and some of the performances look too melodramatic for comfort. The humour — which was such a naturally integral part of the previous Goopy Bagha film — also comes across as slightly forced at times. But even with these minor glitches, it is virtually impossible to take one’s eyes off the screen, even for a second — so strong is the message of the film. Ray highlights several important issues in the film — the tragic ‘creation’ of a terrorist, the dangers of state-sponsored scientific advancements, the angst and frustration of talented people in the regime of tyrants, and the importance of education and enlightenment.
Tapen Chatterjee and Rabi Ghosh are once again effortlessly brilliant as the lovable duo of Goopy and Bagha, respectively. Veteran actor Utpal Dutt plays the king of Hirak with the right mix of humour, callousness towards his subjects’ plight and seething fury at being unable to quell the mutiny.
But despite being a film about the adventures of Goopy and Bagha, the real ‘hero’ of the film is Udayan Pandit — the teacher who is forced to turn into a rebel. It is through him that Ray is speaking, throughout the film. In a brilliant scene right after his school is shut down and his home is destroyed, he goes on the run, only to stumble upon Goopy and Bagha and vow to them — “The school will open again. I will open it.” The strength and grit on his face when he utters those few words are perhaps the same emotions with which Ray himself had set out to write and direct such a powerful film against the ever-deteriorating condition of state administration and public welfare in the country. At its core, then, Hirak Rajar Deshe is much more than a children’s film. It is, by far, one of the best satires against state oppression that the Indian film industry has ever produced. It was relevant then, way back in 1980, and it is relevant even today, and will continue to be so, over the years – reminding us, again and again, that every time an evil king attempts to exploit the farmers, the labourers and the rest of the very people who make the kingdom a kingdom of diamonds, the common man will rise in rebellion, and pull him down.
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.