গুপী গাইন বাঘা বাইন
Dir. Satyajit Ray
I don't so much want to analyze this amazing film as revel in the sense of wonder it creates. It is pure fantasy, what with its dancing ghosts, sinister magicians, an entire kingdom under enchantment that renders it subjects mute, and long-lost brother kings. It is visually thrilling, imaginative, trippy, and delightful. All in support of a simple fable that transports you into a magical, musical world.
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne's two main characters, Goopy (Tapen Chatterjee) and Bagha (Rabi Ghosh), start the movie hapless and a little stupid, or at least cripplingly naive. Goopy, longing to move the hearts of others with his singing, and Bagha, with dreams of rousing people with his drumming, have each been run out of their respective villages for being absolutely awful musicians, and they seem a quintessential pair of slightly dim, easily duped folks, archetypal fools. But by the end of the film they prove themselves strong-hearted and resourceful heroes. They get some help, for sure, in the form of three wishes granted them by a ghost king. But what they do with the power they are given is all them. Their efforts win them the admiration of a king (Santosh Dutta), outsmart a villainous usurper (Jahor Roy), reunite long lost brothers, and avert a war, and through all this they never lose their sweet smiling innocence. It's hard not to love them.
As charming as Goopy and Bagha are, though, I have to wonder how Ray, who can be so extraordinarily sensitive to the way women are bound and restricted in his society, could tell a story in which there are no women whatsoever, except until the final scene in which the kings' daughters are gifted to our young heroes as prizes for their noble efforts. The omission is notable, and discomfiting. It's just one film, just one story, but it is also a beloved film aimed in the direction of children, with its uncomplicated fable of a story and playfully silly visual design. And the message little girls get with the pervasiveness and repetition of stories like these is that there is no place for them in the world at large, no need for them to travel to distant lands, no opportunity to influence world affairs, no role to play except to stand silent and bashful as their fathers hand them off to suitably big-hearted young men. Stories like these reinforce and perpetuate the very cultures that create the caged and dissatisfied Charulatas, the othered and dehumanized Devis that Ray exposes with such a deft hand in many of his other works.
But if I set that wart aside (how many films must one say this about, Indian or otherwise!) what a splendidly bubbling fountain of delights is Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. There have been times when I have fallen prey to the cliché of describing a sweet gentle film as a confection. But Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is not so much a confection as it is the copious rain of mithai that Goopy cleverly conjures to distract the enemy soldiers while he spirits away their good but enchanted king. As the men stuff their faces with these sweets from the sky, we too can stuff our eyeballs with the wonder that Ray conjures.
The film's first twenty minutes look like any other Ray village tale - a young man in a dhoti-kurta ambles about a dusty, sun-baked countryside, a group of grizzled old fellows huddle in the shade of a pipal tree. And then the ghost dance happens, imaginative and trippy with its thrumming drumbeat and its use of black art, masking, and negatives. Graceful dancers slither across the screen, white figures whirling, only to be replaced by the toddling shadows of chubby panjandrums. By the time the ghost king himself appears, all fangs and fluorescent spots, we know we're not in Kansas any more.
That is only the beginning of the magnificent visuals. What is to follow is downright Seussian - curly slippers with grinning faces that are somehow both sinister and friendly; a king sporting a giant turban topped by a sort of chimney; a wizard (Harindranath Chattopadhyay) with mirrored sunglasses and deely-bobber antennae two feet long. It is a most colorful display of visual magic, despite being rendered in black-and-white. And speaking of not being in Kansas, like The Wizard of Oz, Goopy toggles from black-and-white to color at a key point in the story. But while the switch in that 1939 film signals the passage from reality into a magical hyper-reality, here it does something a little different, marking a new stage of life for Bagha and Goopy, an entirely new status. And Bagha appears completely startled by it.
When the ghost king grants Goopy and Bagha the power to mesmerize people with their music, the songs they sing are fun little narrative embellishments, describing the scene or the action. The songs are as impish as the visuals. Indeed, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne exposes a playful side of Ray that doesn't surface in most of his socially significant dramas. There are hints of it in the humor of Shatranj ke Khiladi, but that film was anchored in history and a sharp sociopolitical message. Goopy takes the realistic Awadhi court of Shatranj ke Khiladi through the looking glass, emerging in a dreamworld where dopes can become princes by clicking their heels and wishing for buckets full of mithai. And its world is an utterly delightful place to visit.