Bengali Classic Film Review

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

Those who have already watched Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne will be surprised to know that it is a film that almost never got made because Ray was finding it very difficult to get a producer for the film. When he finally got the Dutts, he found that he could not make it in colour which would have perhaps added a new dimension to the fantasy fairy tale because the producers would not put in the money needed. The casting posed another problem because the actors Ray originally thought of could not be roped in for want of the right budget. So, Ray’s first venture into a fantasy fairy tale had to be made in Black-and-White. The film was based on an illustrated story created by Ray’s paternal grandfather, Upendrakishore Roy Choudhury – an internationally known printer who had invented several printing techniques unknown at the time and also wrote beautiful stories for children. The story was first published in his children’s magazine, Sandesh in 1915. But Ray made a few changes in the original script to suit his conception of the film version. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne turned out to become the greatest commercial hit among Ray’s entire oeuvre having a theatrical run of 51 straight weeks in theatres of West Bengal.

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne revolves around two simple souls. Goopy lives in a village called Amloki and Bagha, an orphan who is from a village called Hortuki, both names drawn from a sour fruit and a medicinal herb. Goopy has dreams of becoming a great singer but he cannot sing a single note right. Bagha loves to play the dhol but he too, like Goopy is nowhere. Listening to the advice of village elders, Goopy wakes up early in the morning to sing a morning raga in front of the king’s palace. But the king not only breaks his tanpura but also orders his men to put him on a donkey and throw him out of the village. Goopy’s poor father wipes a tear but can do nothing to save his son. These two lost souls meet each other outside the village and find themselves on the edge of a forest. Frightened by a tiger, Goopy begins to sing out of tune to shoo the tiger away. The tiger disappears but the forest suddenly becomes very dark and both Goopy and Bagha see dark, shadowy, small figures in silhouette. They are ghosts. Suddenly, the darkness of the night is broken with the appearance of a five-point star with twinkling lights and the ghost king makes his appearance. He takes kindly to the two simpletons and tells them he can give them three boons they wish for. A startled Goopy and Bagha ask for three boons. One is that they should get to eat whatever they wish to, should wear whatever they want to; the second wish is that they should be able to travel as and when and where; the final wish is that they should be able to mesmerise their listeners with the magic of their music. To make their first wish come true, they must give each other a high five with one palm. For the second wish, the King magically produces a pair of beautifully crafted slippers which both must share to be able to travel anywhere and everywhere. For the third wish, well, they test themselves and miraculously, Goopy finds that he can sing with excellent command over raga and tala and Bagha can play the drum very well too.

There is a seven-minute dance of ghosts performed to several kinds of percussion instruments drawn from the South. The ghosts define another technical miracle and a socio-political comment at the same time. There are four different kinds of ghosts. The first group appear in a line, shadowy, willowy silhouettes dressed in white that look like badly made paper cut-outs dancing to Kathakali poses. The second row in black silhouette comprises of figures representing a collage of soldiers, peasants, and so on. The third row is filled with mask-wearing British rulers of different designations indicated by the hats they wear and all of them wear masks, walk stiffly with arched backs, some have walking sticks too. The fourth row of men have huge stomachs and form a microcosm of the capitalist exploiters in society – the Brahmin priest, the Christian priest, the fat-bellied businessman, a moneylender, and so on. These rows are symbiotic in the beginning but as they reappear in two more frames, they begin to fight among themselves. You can actually observe a fat-bellied man wearing a striped kurta handing over some money to the Brahmin priest who pockets it at once. The Christian clergyman thrusts the bible at the others, forcing them to read. This may appear very entertaining and funny especially for children. If one probes deeper, one can read Ray’s perceptive socio-political comment on the sociological cast-class schism that sustains in society.

Ray, who also designed the costumes for the entire film, paid special attention to the clothes, head gear and hair style of the ghosts though they were shadowy figures in the first row and become sharper as the hierarchy rises. The masks that are close to the camera have bulging eyes specially one among the British ghosts. He maintained an entire sketchbook of costumes of the ghosts. One cannot stop wondering whether the shadowy ghosts were real dancers or puppets made out of different things because the dance itself in beautifully choreographed and performed. We have never seen anything like this in Indian cinema before or after.

Once Goopy and Bagha begin to use their magic to mesmerise their listening audience, they begin on their adventurous journey first to Halla and then to Shundi, each ruled by a different king who are twins. The King of Halla is constantly drugged by his evil Prime Minister with the help of the court magician Borfi – a brilliant cameo by the late Harindranath Chattopadhyay. The drugs push the king into phases of violence and childish behaviour. We see him doing some Origami with papers in one scene while in another, he shoots out of his throne to fight an invisible enemy when the Prime Minister cries “juddho” meaning war. In other words, the king is effectively suppressed by the Prime Minister but does not know it. The Prime Minister keeps the subjects, soldiers, court employees, prison guards starving and hungry and even the camels reserved for war are kept starving.

Shundi presents a different story altogether. The subjects mingle in the marketplace happily, their religion identifiable by the caps they are wearing or not wearing. But they are all mute due to some plague that attacked the entire population when the King was away with his family so he is not mute. But he refuses to talk because his subjects cannot. He does not believe in any line of defence so Shundi has no army, no weaponry, no defence minister and no war strategy. This makes it very simple of the evil Prime Minister of Halla to wage war against Shundi so that he can rule over both Halla andd Shundi. The King of Shundi who appointed Goopy and Bagha to become his court musicians after they won in the music contest, appeals to them to go to Halla and rescue his brother and stop the war.

Stopping the war even before it has begun is like cakewalk for Goopy and Bagha who begin to sing and the entire army is frozen through the hypnotic effect their music has on them including the Prime Minister and the King. They then sing to shower rains of sweets like rosogollas, chomchoms, sandesh and so on and extra-large sweets begin dropping from the skies above. The hungry soldiers pounce on these earthen pots and the war comes to an end before it can begin. The King sprints down the steps of the place shouting “chhuti chhuti chhuti” like a little child freed from captivity after a long time. Goopy and Bagha hold him between them while he is hogging rosogollas from the earthen pot they have given him. The King is not even aware that he is already in Shundi because he is busy eating. The Shundi King keeps his promise of offering his daughter’s hand to Goopy. When Bagha is sad because Shundi’s daughter is too tall for him, the Halla King offers his daughter who is the right size. The screen turns to colour with the two silent, veiled beauties appear on the scene with Goopy and Bagha in princely attire.

Ray took technical innovations in cinema to a new dimension with Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and also with the lyrics of each songs written and composed by himself. For example, in the ghost song which Goopy sings and Bagha plays the drums to, they describe the kind of ghosts they have come to know of such as – thin ghosts, fat ghosts, narrow ghosts, chubby ghosts, straight ghosts, crooked ghosts, lame ghosts and blind ghosts as a thanksgiving song after getting the boons. The one they sing in the court of King Shundi in the competition goes – Maharaja Tomaake Shelam, Mora Bangladesher Thekey Elaam (O King, we bow to you, from the land of Bangladesh which we come from) shakes the King out of deep slumber the other classical singers had pushed him to and he begins to swing this way and that. Each song has a special place in the film also in terms of its picturisation and choreography so you cannot even remember the film without its songs. Ray originally had thought of Kishore Kumar to lend his voice to the songs of Goopy but he had date problems so Ray then chose Anup Ghoshal, an outstanding classical singer. The biting satire contained in the lyrics, the music and the delivery of the song targeting the Prime Minister has been conceived with some original beats and repeats – Oh Montri Moshai Shodojontri Mosha, Tobe Thaak, which they sing to escape from prison.

Tapan Chatterjee made his debut as Goopy and as he had no star image, he simply melted into the character. Robi Ghosh was already an established character actor and he had no problems essaying Bagha with the comments he makes when Goopy sings and his fetish of washing his hands before every meal never mind that he is very hungry. Forgotten comedians of Bengali cinema such as Jahar Roy as the Prime Minister, Haridhan Mukherjee as a village elder and Nripati Chatterjee as the skeletal prison guard  prove once again their mastery over performance. Santosh Dutta as the twin Kings of Halla and Shundi too performs extremely well. The performances are so organic that they seem to simply flow out of the screen naturally.

Though it is now common knowledge that Ray made Goopy Gybe Bagha Byne for children because of his son’s wish, today when I see the film, it is as  much a film for adults, as it is for children, It offers everything that equates as entertainment in cinema and at the same time, it throws up a political essay on hunger and its ramifications in the modern world where in India, leaders like to sustain poverty because it forces the poor to vote and keeps the size of the electorate rising because the poor always expect that whoever comes to power will take care of their hunger – basic, physical hunger sometimes bordering on starvation.

At the other end of the rope, the film shows how hunger can be used to stop a war even before it begins. When Goopy and Bagha rain huge rosogollas from the heavens above with the boon they have been gifted with – music and song, the war goes to the dogs and all the starving soldiers rush to collect the earthen pots and begin to gobble up as much as they can including the King of Shundi. There is another angle which shows that every state needs to maintain a minimum line of defence so that it can defend itself and its people from war-monging neighbours and peace does not mean the total absence of self-defence which can invoke war and without preparation, the said state will lose the war much before it has begun.

This critic’s only grouse about this film is the total marginalization of the two princesses – the daughters of Shundi and Halla who are reduced to dumb, doll-like appearances and are not permitted to say a word for or against the choice of Goopy and Bagha – illiterate, poor and plain-looking, for their husbands. Shundi’s king can remain mute because his subjects cannot speak. But he refuses to grant his daughter a voice of her own.

Bengali, Fantasy, Black & White

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