….Wars between neighbours
Wars between nations
Only lead to death and destruction….
Why then are you fighting this war?
Yes, why then are you fighting this war?
As film stories go, this is one of the simplest. Two bumbling musicians—a singer and a drummer—come together in funny circumstances and become friends; they travel to strange lands, occasionally intentionally and are granted three wishes by the “bhooter raja” (king of goblins), one of which gives them mastery over their crafts. They move kings and commoners alike with their songs, prevents a war, marry two princesses and live happily ever after. It was essentially meant to be a children’s film, like the story it was based on.
But Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne by Satyajit Ray, one of India’s most influential film-makers ever, turned out to be much more—a cult classic with its stark anti-war message that remains relevant 50 years after Goopi and Bagha embarked on their epic adventure. When it was released in the summer of 1969, the fantasy-adventure film laced with beautiful music was an instant hit with children. But what came as a surprise, perhaps, was the resonance the film found with adults. Bengali film thespian Soumitra Chatterjee, who acted in 14 of Ray’s films, says Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne ran for 100 consecutive weeks, a record that remains unbroken. Ray was encouraged to do a sequel Hirak Rajar Deshe in 1980. Later, his son Sandip Ray made the third film of the series, Goopi Bagha Fire Elo (1991).
But what made GGBB such a classic? The story revolves around the two villagers Goopi and Bagha, both tone-dead yet aspire to become singer and drummer respectively. After obtaining three boons from the king of goblins, they embark on an adventure that takes them to distant places. Finally, they arrive at the kingdom of Shundi and were accepted as court musicians. When the king of the neighbouring kingdom Halla plans to attack Shundi with the intention to occupy it, Goopi and Bagha foils it with their magical power and brings peace in the two countries.
A still from the movie.
Soumitra Chatterjee points out that while the story line was a fantasy, the strong anti-war message was ingrained artistically in the story that made its appeal universal. However, he reminds that to make it acceptable to the audience, Ray rooted his film firmly on Bengal’s soil. The village from where Goopi begins his journey, the forest where he and Bagha are forced to spend the night and first meets a tiger and then the king of goblins, all portray Bengal’s rural ambience. The dance of the ghosts was craftily designed to portray the society and its hierarchy. On top of that the music he composed for the film also gave it a quintessential Bengali flavour. “The king of goblin and his three boons should be taken metaphorically. The fantasy film took help of symbolism to move forward with the story and its subtext. The moot point is that even if these two village youths are otherwise weak and daft, through their adventurous journey they could overcome their weakness and transcend into better human beings,” observes Chattopadhyay. “The story line and its treatment, backed by high quality music that struck a chord with not only children, but also with the adults,” he adds.
To commemorate 50 years of its release, the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives held an exhibition in Calcutta this April. It showcased various sketches of characters, sets, court scenes, posters, score sheets of songs, and photos of actors and Ray.
Goutam Ghose, another filmmaker from Bengal with international repute, points to some of the subtext underlying the storyline of GGBB. In the 1960s, the Vietnam War was dominating the global narrative. The strong anti-war message in Ray’s film could be seen through the prism of Vietnam War. Incidentally, in 1970, Ray made another film Pratidwandi (The Adversary), a commentary on the politically turbulent times of that period. There the protagonist faces a interview board as a job aspirant and asked the simple question: What is the most important event of the world today? His answer was Vietnam War. He was further asked a question: Don’t you think men landing on moon is much more important? He shrugs and says: Don’t think so. Thus, Ray took a clear stand on the question of war and it was not surprising that his position was artistically woven in the children’s movie without unsettling the main theme of the film. “Ray’s adaptation of his grandfather’s story was so timely, even if it was a fantasy for children, its latent message was missed by none,” says Ghose. He further explains, “Look at the sequel Ray made later. Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the Land of the Diamond King), made in 1980, speaks of the tyranny of a bad king, who tries to brainwash his subjects with the help of scientists, in his desire with to continue his rule. With extraordinary prescience, Ray portrayed wizard Borfi and his magic potion in GGBB and hinted at the realistic possibilities of rulers trying to subjugate people by gagging them. During the Emergency (1975-77), India had experienced similar things.”
In 2017, actress-turned-director Aparna Sen had said that Ray political attitude was reflective of a typical rhetoric of political parties. In 1966, he was at the forefront of a silent protest march against police brutality. Many tend to forget that Ray was one of the signatories demanding the release of political prisoners languishing in various jails from before and during Emergency. Also, in 1989, when the Chinese army brutally suppressed students at Tiananmen Square, Ray had joined a worldwide protest by issuing a statement condemning the crackdown, causing much heartburn in the ruling Left in Calcutta.
Half-a-century later, Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne’s anti-war message finds resonance in today’s political climate. Contrast it with the growing drum beating for war and the popular jingoism that is sweeping across Indian society and one gets the right language to counter it: Rajye rajye paraspare dwande amangol/ Tora juddho kore korbi kita bol (Wars only bring misery/What will you gain by going to battle).