There are some films that offer deep, mind-searing insights into human life. There are some that allow one to escape for a couple of hours into a world of make believe where good and beautiful people always win and the bad always come to a sorry end.
And there are films like this one, which I seriously think should be prescribed as an anti-depressant. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne) isn’t among Satyajit Ray’s most profound works—it’s not in the same league, perhaps, as the Apur trilogy or Nayak. It is, however, one of the most charming films ever made in India, and a sure cure for the blues. I adore this film. Every delightful little bit of it.
Gopinath ‘Goopy’ (Tapan Chatterjee) is a sweet, somewhat simple-minded villager who has great hopes of becoming an accomplished singer. Goopy, however, can’t carry a tune to save his life, and (what’s worse) is blissfully unaware of this shortcoming. The other villagers trick him into showing off his skills to the local ruler: go to the ruined temple opposite the raja’s palace and wake him at dawn with your singing, advises a nasty village elder, and poor Goopy is easily duped.
The end result is that the raja smashes Goopy’s tanpura and has him expelled from the village, riding away on a donkey. Goopy is a kind-hearted soul and soon lets the donkey go off. But now Goopy’s on his own, and the lonely countryside, with dusk approaching, doesn’t look appealing.
Fortunately for Goopy, he comes across Bagha (Robi Ghosh), a drummer whose skill with the dhol is so abysmal that the raja has chucked him out of his village too.
Goopy and Bagha throw in their lot with each other, which is just as well because fate hasn’t finished with these two yet. A wandering tiger gives our heroes a fright, and once that’s gone, the woods around suddenly turn dark. A troupe of ghosts—dressed as soldiers, dancers, old European dandies and whatnot—appear and treat Goopy and Bagha to a protracted performance. The spooks fight each other, dance (even waltz!) and generally put up quite a show.
Once that’s over, the King of Ghosts (who’d put in an appearance at the start of the performance) tells the dumbstruck Goopy and Bagha that he’ll grant them three wishes. I can’t figure out why he’s being so generous to these two (perhaps he’s sorry for them? They are rather pathetic).
Goopy and Bagha ask for three things:
(a) All the food and clothing they’ll need, whenever they need it,
(b) The ability to travel wherever they want to, and whenever (these are guys after my own heart!)
(c) The skill to entertain people with their music—yes, this was sorely needed
True to his word, the King of Ghosts grants their wishes. Goopy and Bagha need only yell out what they want to eat or wear, or where they want to go (the latter while wearing magical jooties which the King gifts them). Then they do a high-five with one hand each, and hey presto—they’ll get what they’ve asked for. And, says the King of Ghosts as a parting shot, they’ll be able to ‘freeze’ people with the brilliance of their music.
The next morning, they try it all out. Sure enough, Goopy’s voice is now glorious (and perfectly in tune), and Bagha has changed overnight into a dab hand with the dhol. Just after the two friends have had a massive breakfast, they notice a little cortège passing by accompanied by much singing. Goopy and Bagha’s enquiries are greeted with the news that these people are musicians too, and are off to Shundi to participate in the musical competition to be held there by the Raja of Shundi (Santosh Dutta) to select his court musicians.
Since Bagha and Goopy have been wondering where they’ll live, this looks like a great idea: go to Shundi, participate in the competition, win it, and get to live in the raja’s palace. Easy as pie! So, with the aid of their magic jooties (and after getting lost a bit because both have forgotten the name of their destination), Goopy and Bagha arrive in Shundi.
Shundi is a rich, fertile land, but with one strange feature: everybody in the land is mute. Goopy and Bagha are taken aback, but trudge off to the raja’s palace. It later emerges that the raja and his family are the only people in Shundi who can speak—they were away from Shundi when an epidemic struck, turning everybody mute.
The musicians assembled at the palace are a daunting lot and Goopy and Bagha are suitably daunted.
Until they notice the effect on the raja:
All of these proceedings are fairly innocuous. But unknown to the dozing raja of Shundi, far away in the kingdom of Halla, a conspiracy is brewing. The evil Prime Minister of Halla (Jahar Ray) is plotting to attack Shundi and annex all that good land. In these machinations, his most wily ally is the wizard Barfi (Harindranath Chattopadhyay, looking a scream in diamond-shaped dark glasses, a jazzy robe and a helmet with antennae!)
The Prime Minister of Halla also manages to get his boss, the raja of Halla (also Santosh Dutta), to agree to the war with Shundi. While the commander of the Halla armies is given orders to get his reluctant and lazy troops in order, Barfi is instructed to create a drug that’ll cure the citizens of Shundi of their muteness—the Prime Minister’s of the opinion that if they can speak, they’ll speak up against the raja of Shundi and rebel. Sounds thin to me.
And, of course, a messenger is despatched to the Raja of Shundi with news that unless he surrenders within three days, Halla’s army will attack.
The raja has by now selected Goopy and Bagha as his court musicians (naturally! Our heroes surpass all the other musicians). They’ve been installed in fancy chambers inside the palace and are living it up.
So, when the Halla raja’s threatening missive arrives, Goopy and Bagha are at hand to see the effect it has on their king. The raja fills them in on some more details: the raja of Halla is his brother and used to be a good guy until he inexplicably turned bad and now appears to have flung all scruple to the winds.
This is sobering news indeed, and Goopy and Bagha decide they can’t sit around waiting for Shundi to fall. They persuade the raja of Shundi to let them go to Halla to try and stop the war.
The raja is initially hesitant—he’s tactful, but it’s obvious he doesn’t think highly of the diplomatic abilities of these country bumpkins. Furthermore, says he, how’ll they get to Halla so soon? It’s all of 160 miles from Shundi (he doesn’t know about the jooties and the duo’s equivalent of “beam me up, Scotty”). Eventually, though, he concedes, and what’s more, promises that if our boys are successful, one of them will be married to the princess Monimala, daughter to the raja.
With that incentive egging them on, Goopy and Bagha go off to foil the evil plans of Halla. There are plenty of other adventures in store for them, and the two pals get to make full use of the wishes they were granted. There’s pathos (admittedly absurd), drama, a little bit of inept daredevilry, and romance in store for them—and plenty of laughs for the audience.
What I liked about this film:
Everything, really. It’s sweet, it’s funny, and it’s very watchable. The acting is superb (Chatterjee and Ghosh are especially awesome, as is Harindranath Chattopadhyay as the mad wizard Barfi) and the entire feel of the film is that of a light-hearted frolic that deliberately doesn’t take itself seriously. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne can’t be classed with fantasy films like the B-grade flicks Bombay was churning out in the 50’s and 60’s: those tried too hard to pretend they were serious about all the magic, the evil, the sorcery and the fantasy they expected viewers to believe. This one, with Barfi’s spells being a hit-or-miss affair, the commander’s troops dozing while he tries to muster them, and the Halla raja making paper cut-outs in his spare time, isn’t trying to be real. It’s an unabashedly farcical fairytale, and absolutely brilliant.
And yes, the music is wonderful: Goopy and Bagha’s folksy tunes are very infectious. The lyrics and the music, by the way, are both by Satyajit Ray.
What I didn’t like:
There are plot holes: small ones, but still. For instance, how come nobody at the music competition at Shundi ‘freezes’ when Goopy and Bagha start singing? And why does the King of Ghosts grant them those three wishes, anyway? There are others too, but I won’t write them here—spoilers, you know.
But then, as I mentioned, this isn’t a film to be taken seriously. It’s a film to be enjoyed, to be laughed over, and to find new things in to love every time you see it. A hugely endearing, delightful masterpiece.
Little bit of trivia:
If you pay attention to the splendid cartoons accompanying the credits, you’ll see they mirror the story of the film.
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, by the way, was the most commercially successful of Satyajit Ray’s films: in Bengal, it ran for a record 51 weeks. I’m not surprised.