Why a Modern Update on Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is Important in a Time of War-Mongering

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Why a Modern Update on Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is Important in a Time of War-Mongering

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

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t was both a good and a bad time for Shilpa Ranade’s Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya to release in theatres last Friday. One half of the nation – the younger half – was busy with exams and the other half, was hoping for a war. But as India and Pakistan teetered on the brink of a war, there couldn’t have been a more relevant time for an animated anti-war film that explored power politics and the right to dissent, to see the light of day.

Incidentally, Ranade’s Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya – that comes over 100 years after noted Bengali author, Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury wrote his much-revered story Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne – was completed six years ago. The story was however, immortalised by Chowdhury’s grandson, Satyajit Ray, in a fantasy musical of the same name that turns 50 this year. Generations of Bengalis have grown up on multiple viewings of the classic film that thrives on pioneering ingenuous visual effects, catchy songs, dialogues in verse, and crackling wordplay. Accompanying the delightful song and dance, was a powerful anti-war, anti-authoritarian message that remains relevant to this day.

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne revolved around two village bumpkins – tone-deaf Goopy and the drummer Bagha – who set off on a mission to stop two kingdoms from going to war with help from the King of Ghosts who grants them three wishes. In the film, the two kingdoms are ruled by a set of twin brothers. One of them is a happy-go-lucky king, who loves his music, his people, and peace. And the other, under the drugged influence of his evil senapati decides to attack the former’s kingdom.

Under the spell of our heroes’ song, the soldiers drop arms and pick up a handi full of sweets that their music conjures out of thin air

The film’s twist hinges on Goopy and Bagha winning over the “evil” king and his silent zombie-esque army by the power of their music. In Ray’s film, famished soldiers – dragged into a war not of their making – listen mesmerised to a chilling anti-war anthem. Calling them “slaves of their master”, Goopy and Bagha appeal to their conscience and remind them that they are going to die in a mindless war between generals, nations and neighbours, and argue over the pointlessness of it all. Under the spell of our heroes’ song, the soldiers drop arms and pick up a handi full of sweets that their music conjures out of thin air. Similarly, in Ranade’s Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya, Goopi and Bagha call upon the soldiers with a rousing song, exhorting them to dissent, to question, to think, to resist and to love, but never to fight. It’s a calm plea that feels all the more powerful in the hyper-reactive times we live in right now.

For 50 years, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne has been synonymous with Satyajit Ray and while it’s impossible to measure up, Ranade’s animated iteration demands to be engaged with. While she does a competent job of addressing themes of otherness of the social and cultural misfits that Ray’s film championed, her film boasts of other flourishes as well. In Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya, the two kings use Urdu/Arabic words and immediately offer a Hindi version: Their vocabulary is generously sprinkled with phrases like “Jung urf yudh” and “Khana urf bhojan”. It’s impossible not  to interpret it as a delightfully cheeky take on India’s current national pastime: Rewriting history and disowning our past instead of learning from it.

What makes both versions of the film so extraordinary is that they’re actually political satire; a stinging social commentary in the colourful, fantastical garb of a children’s film. Hence even at its most chilling moments – impoverished villagers dressed in battle gear reaching out for food or the mad king and his generals doing a crazy battle dance – it is gentle and amusing.

The Bengal that Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne released in, isn’t the same as the Bengal of today. Recently, a political, satirical film disguised as a comedy about ghosts, was pulled off theatres, resulting in chief minister Mamata Banerjee being called out for her hypocrisy. In such a climate, I wonder what sort of reception Ray’s film would have got from the powers-that-be?

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