Instead of raving about Satyajit Ray’s well-known-outside-of-India projects like the Apu Trilogy (Pather Pancahli/Song of the Little Road, Aprajito/The Unvanquished, and Apur Sansar/The World of Apu) or Jalsaghar/The Music Room (available through Criterion), I want to rave about his fantastic fantastical 1968 children’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne/The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha.
Two aspiring but talentless musicians are tossed out of their respective homes. After meeting each other in a dangerous forest, they encounter a ghost, who is so taken with them that he grants them magical slippers that provide food, clothing, travel, and most wonderfully for our heroes, musical skills that spellbind audiences. And like the inherently kind and upright men they are, they also lend their new powers to the struggle of good against evil: the defense of their new royal patron against his twin brother in another kingdom, the figurehead ruler at the mercy of the evil vizier.
My love affair with Indian films has mostly centered on the commercial, mainstream cinema of Bombay/Mumbai, not the generally less hyper and more normal-life scaled films of Calcutta, so discovering that Satyajit Ray sometimes has the same big, squishy heart found in Bollywood has been a very pleasant surprise. Even the plot I just described might sound familiar to anyone who has seen a dozen or so Bollywood films: the royal (or similarly palatial) setting, small men who leap on to a bigger canvas to fight evil, twin brothers separated by both geography and moral compass, and the easily “logical” use of songs to advance the story or amp up the entertainment value of the film. One of the reasons I wanted to write about Goopy and Bagha for The Cultural Gutter is because it often seems Ray’s films are assumed to be stodgy, inaccessible, and/or numbingly depressing, a sort of greatest hits of unfavorable stereotypes about foreign art cinema. My experience with them has been the opposite: they are creative, engaging, quietly funny, and performed beautifully at a very human scale by some of India’s finest cinema actors.
Like many great children’s films, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne works on multiple levels simultaneously and has as much to offer adults as children: there is commentary on responsibility, levity, and being an imperfect human, but you could simply delight in Ray and his crew’s achievements with basic cinematic assets like characterization, music, and visuals. This just may be one a film that falls into the elite category of “If you don’t like this, there is something seriously wrong with you.”
Somehow I can equally believe that it’s all just for fun and that there is socio-historical commentary lurking, ready to bite, under the riveting dance, costumes, and special effects. At other times the creative decisions read much more strongly as simply deliberately playful, like the animals and exuberant patterns that adorn the palace walls and furnishings.
There is one element of this film that leaves me scratching my head in the bad way: it has no women who speak. The two who do appear are merely wish-fulfillment (i.e. pretty, royal wives) for Goopy and Bagha. Even after multiple viewings, I have not been able to come to terms with this aspect of the script. Whatever justification is offered—namely that the original story (by Ray’s grandfather) has no women in it—I am unsatisfied, although it has been very interesting thinking about what responsibilities one has to one’s own time and/or culture when selecting a base story from another. You can read more on this issue in a mighty essay at The Journal of the Moving Image (Jadavpur University) called “Conditions of Visibility: People’s Imagination and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne“ by Professor Mihir Bhattacharya, in which I found a summary that feels all too sadly like the basic truth of the matter: “This exaggerated depopulation…constitutes no mystery, for it is customary to hold that boys have more interesting lives, that the majority of the readers will be boys, and that boys constitute the more precious half of the child population.”
I fancy myself at least moderately sensitive to gender issues, especially blatant ones like “Will there be any females at all in this film?”, but GGBB is so delightful that even I did not notice any of this until about three-fourths the way through the film when one of the heroes spots a princess far up on the balcony of a palace tower. That is how wonderful this movie is. It’s so full of charm and interest and humor that you don’t even notice your pet peeve howling at you through its entire run time.
I have so much respect for GGBB and the people who made it. It is so thoughtful and warm and fun. Even the one thing I disliked about it made me ask questions and go off and do some research. The film bubbles over with beautiful or clever things to see and interesting things to think about. And I do mean bubbles: there’s something very light and bouncing and shiny about GGBB, even when it is commenting on fundamental aspects of humanity like aggression (which you should overcome by raining bucketfuls of sweets on your enemies) implying philosophical questions via warring twin brothers, or designing a magician’s costume out of a geometry classroom prop bin (which I mean as a compliment—all the costumes, which were designed by Ray, are really fantastic).
I love that it is mostly good to its protagonists once somebody understands and appreciates them and lets them make good on the talents they so desperately wish they had. It’s so nice to be surrounded by kindness for a change. It’s so nice to use fantasy and imagination to be better than we are in real life.
Beth Watkins has been writing about Bollywood since 2005 at Beth Loves Bollywood. She also tweets , podcasts, and tumbls. And she is a noted agent of the sinister confederation of pop culture writers and podcasters, The Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit.