It is not easy to believe that Satyajit Ray had come close to abandoning a film project because nobody was willing to put their money in it. And we are not talking about Pather Panchali, his first film, here. This was 1967/68. Ray at the time had no fewer than 13 full-length feature films to his name. He had also figured repeatedly on the top honours lists at some of the world’s great film festivals including Berlin and Venice. And yet, the producers he had worked with before this baulked at the idea of financing Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, 1969).
They thought the film’s budget was extravagant. (For perspective: GGBB spent Rs 24 million in 2019 money (Rs 0.60 million then), while Bahubali 2 is reputed to have had a budget, in 2017, of Rs 2,500 million and the Tamil film 2.0 (in 2018) of a mere Rs 5,430 million.)
The fact that it was billed as primarily a children’s movie may also have weighed on the producers’ minds. In the end, Ray did find a backer, though he had to scale back the project significantly. GGBB did not manage to be a colour film in the end, as Ray had planned. He had to be content with filming only the closing sequence in colour. In the event, it turned out to be a chartbuster, running non-stop for close to a year in some theatres in Kolkata and elsewhere.
Ray knew the GGBB story ever since he was a child. It first appeared in 1915 (six years before he was born) in Sandesh, the immensely popular children’s magazine of which his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury – who also wrote the story – was the founder-editor. Sandesh had a chequered past: it went out of business several times, but was revived by succeeding generations of the Ray family, only to stall again, till Satyajit Ray himself came along in 1961 and started co-editing it together with the poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay.
GGBB made a repeat appearance in Sandesh, and proved to be quite as popular as it had been on its debut. The story revolves around the engaging exploits of two bumbling and gawky young men who happen to stray into the big bad world of scheming ministers, war maniacs and kindly ghosts. They are aspiring musicians, tone-deaf and a little daft, but their hearts are in the right places. Armed with three fabulous boons with which the King of Ghosts blesses them, their peregrinations take them to Shundi, a peaceable country of contented men where a music-loving king reigns benignly. The king’s brother, the monarch of neighbouring Halla, is plotting to invade and take Shundi by storm.
It is his wicked prime minister, aided by a fiendish necromancer, who holds the Halla king hostage, obliging him to declare war on Shundi. Halla’s army, poor and hungry, is lined up for the grand assault when our two musicians descend on the scene and, after a series of spectacular capers, disarm the troops and abort the war. The minister and his clique take to their heels, the two royal brothers are reunited in friendship, and peace is established all round. Each of our heroes, acclaimed court musicians already, is given the hand of a princess in marriage. Everyone lives happily ever after.
With these humble building blocks, Ray erects the magnificent edifice of delightful adventure fantasy. He achieves the willing suspension of disbelief, which lies at the heart of all successful fantasy, by undergirding the story with humour and joy in the simple pleasures of life. Ray’s sense of humour is all-embracing: it ranges from the gently ironic to the uproariously funny, and even the bizarre, the grotesque does not fail to tickle his funny bone.
The first time that Goopy, the singer, and Bagha, the drummer – both banished from their respective villages for their music was a torment to their neighbours – bump into each other inside a forest, Goopy manages to get under Bagha’s skin by mimicking him endlessly.
They very nearly come to blows but then, suddenly, a tiger makes its appearance nearby. The two freeze, wearing wild grimaces on their faces, and huddle together for safety. By the time the tiger leaves, our protagonists are thick friends, and they now proceed for their memorable rendezvous with the Ghost King (who, pleased with their antics, grants them their three wishes, thus equipping them for their charming adventures).
When the King of Halla, drugged by his vile prime minister, gets into his belligerent avatar, he breaks into a scary, raucous martial song inside his court and intimidates the assembled guests and dignitaries into joining in. The ashen-faced worthies, many of them visiting princes from other countries, mumble the odious lines as the king prances around them with a deadly spear in his hand and a deranged smirk on his face.
This sequence has all the trappings of the macabre: war drums, fierce-looking masks, the hangman on the prowl, looking for prey; but it is also wildly funny in its rousing marching song.
Barfi, the black-magician of Halla
When the Ghost King asks our heroes what boons they seek from him, Goopy and Bagha want three simple needs to be satisfied, good and plentiful food, the ability to travel to wherever they fancied and musical skill. (In that order: in the original story, the musical wish comes first.) No overreaching ambition here, no craving for great power, no desire to avenge the many injustices they have suffered at others’ (insensitive neighbours, a bully of a king who publicly humiliates Goopy and breaks his tanpura) hands.
They now eat hearty meals but leave enough for a stray dog who accosts them. They are greatly touched by the friendliness and courtesy shown them by Shundi’s ordinary citizens (all struck dumb by a mysterious illness some years ago), and they amuse themselves often by using their new-found musical proficiency.
Soon enough, they discover the add-on advantage the Ghost King blessed them with: their music now has the power of literally transfixing listeners, thus giving our protagonists a clear edge over their adversaries in a tight situation. And yet, throughout the film, Goopy and Bagha remain the amiable, uncomplicated and well-meaning souls we saw them to be in the beginning.
The ghosts dance as Goopy and Bagha look on
GGBB bristles with technical ingenuity of a kind rarely seen till then in Indian cinema. Trick photography (together with ‘inverted’ shot mixing) spectacularly transports the heroes in a jiffy to the desert (and next, to a snow-bound wasteland) when they are trying to reach Shundi but cannot remember the place’s name.
The magician makes the Halla courtiers skip around him like mechanical toys, and then brings them to an abrupt halt with a swish of his stick. He also conjures out of thin air his own chair at the precise moment that he wants to sit down. The six-and-a-half minute dance of ghosts is a mesmerising ensemble of shadow puppetry, live action and a slowed-down (alternating with an accelerated) mixing of the dance frames – all of it playing out to the accompaniment of a virtuoso percussion recital on four different south Indian percussion instruments.
Ray lent his own voice to the Ghost King’s endearing address to Goopy and Bagha, first recording it at a certain speed and then re-recording it at another. The effect is suitably other-worldly. One imagines that some of the technical innovations that Ray had thought up for his aborted (in 1967/68) Hollywood film project The Alien (widely believed to have inspired, if it was not directly drawn upon by, Spielberg’s E.T. ) would have come in handy while shooting GGBB.
But GGBB’s enduring appeal lies above all in its music track, which serves up a delightfully varied fare. Hindustani classical, rural Bengali folk, Carnatic instrumental, European military march music and a freewheeling mixed-genre idiom created by Ray himself coalesce effortlessly into a musical extravaganza that doesn’t have many parallels in world cinema. The music is as ear-filling as it is delicate, as piquant in execution as it is innovative in its score. Most of the songs come from Goopy, of course, but other characters also pipe in now and then, our drummer Bagha himself pulling off some memorable interventions in the actor’s own voice.
Ray’s irrepressible sense of the funny also creates some sparkling musical interludes, as when an ageing Ustad, seated in a gorgeous palanquin being carried by six burly bearers, practises a complex phrase of a lively raga as he traverses a wide open, treeless landscape. One of his flunkies runs alongside the palanquin breathlessly, his right arm rising and falling to the music’s beat.
Among all his films, GGBB is probably the most firmly rooted in the Bengali soil. (It is also one of Ray’s ‘wordiest’, the film’s dialogue far outweighing its silent episodes.) Of course, Pather Panchali also documents the social milieu of rural Bengal in the second or third decade of the 20th century, and does so with great sensitivity and care to detail.
But the broad human appeal of the storyline there went beyond the specificities of its locale. It also had frequent episodes of pregnant silence that obviated the need for dialogue. GGBB, being a funny tale, leans a lot on colloquialisms, witty turns of phrase, locally coloured idioms and smart but ‘rustic’ street lingo.
For a non-Bengali speaking audience, therefore, much of the film’s engaging charm is easy to miss. (Subtitles are an unsatisfactory purveyor of a film’s spirit at the best of times and, for a movie like this, they are hopelessly inadequate to their task.)
Therefore, it is not surprising that GGBB did not make a big splash in the West, and its foreign festival awards didn’t come from such places as Venice, Berlin or Cannes, but from Melbourne, Tokyo and Auckland. Critical acclaim in Europe and the US was also relatively muted, with some critics suggesting that the film was perhaps ‘a little too long’ for its target audience, which was supposed to consist of children.
But should GGBB be pigeonholed as a kids’ movie? I think not, though its billing suggested that children were likely to enjoy it most. Alongside its melange of fantasy, comedy and adventure, it sites the universal themes of brotherhood, compassion, love and unselfishness and makes a compelling case for peace in a humane world.
The king of Halla, at last free from the evil machinations of his prime minister, erupts in joy and runs along the ramparts of his fortress, threshing his arms about like a child, and shouting ‘I am free, I am free’, startling a flight of pigeons that take off from his path with a noisy flutter. The elders of the Amlaki village strongly encourage the naive Goopy to present his horribly-out-of-tune music to the king, knowing full well what the likely consequences were.
Expectedly, the ill-tempered king flies into a rage. Goopy is publicly humiliated, put on a donkey’s back and banished from Amlaki for ever, much to the elders’ mirth. Ray doesn’t fail to show us that these are lazy, parasitic characters with a streak of active malevolence in them. As Goopy is driven out, we get a glimpse of his poor father (who was always so upset by his son’s obsessive attachment to music) standing at the village’s end, looking on as the donkey, with Goopy on top of it, disappears into the winter haze. As he turns around to walk his weary way home, the father wipes teardrops from his eyes.
Some critics have wondered if GGBB can be seen as an allegory. The theme of evil grasping at the throat of life was so apposite when a horribly unequal war raged in Vietnam that some have seen the movie as a commentary on such conflicts, too. It is idle to speculate on what all was going through Ray’s mind as he worked on the movie. It is possible that contemporary political turmoil was refracted into the movie through the prism of a highly cultivated sensibility.
A well-known Shakespearean critic once noted how the bard’s preoccupations with broad moral themes were often distilled into his work apparently without Shakespeare being conscious of the process himself. He argued that the creative mind, at a certain heightened level of arousal, soaks up experiences like a blotter absorbs water, and those same experiences then colour the world of his art. A similar phenomenon may have been at work in Ray’s case as well, but let us not rack our brains over the puzzle. Let us only feel grateful that he gave us this sparkling comedy which can light up the world for us even when we are ‘in vacant or in pensive mood’.
Anjan Basu is a literary critic, commentator and translator. He can be reached at email@example.com.