Guest author: Sulagna Maitra
“Pete khele pithe shoye, e toh kobhu miche noye,
Sena dekhe lage bhoy, lage bhoy,
Adh peta kheye bujhi more… More!
Joto byata choleche somore, joto byata choleche somore
O…. re Halla Raja’r sena, O re Halla Raja’r sena
Tora juddho kore korbi ki ta bol?”
“You can take a beating if your stomach’s full, they say –
This lot looks like they’ll die of empty stomachs on the way,
Marching off to war.
Oh, all you soldiers of Halla!
What are you fighting for?”
51 years since its release, Satyajit Ray’s first children’s film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne or The Adventures of Goopy Bagha (1969), remains at its core – as perfectly summed up in the above few lines – a story exposing the fruitlessness of war, exploring various social issues plaguing the world at the time of its production. The original script was inspired by his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s story, published in Sandesh (a delightful and popular children’s magazine of which his grandfather was founder-editor) in 1915, six years before he was born. What makes it pertinent filmmaking, beyond technical prowess that has withstood the test of time, much like many of Ray’s other works, is its relevance even in contemporary times, making the story timeless.
The film unfolds with a traditional folk-tale narrative, situated firmly in rural Bengal. Goopy (played by Tapen Chattopadhyay), a poor farmer’s son, aspiring to be an artist – a classical singer, is introduced to us. Synonymous with his name, he is endearingly goofy, someone who’s often taken advantage of. Although lacking in talent, he spends his days practicing music, earning his father’s admonishment, yet refusing to recognise his flaws or, change. This adamant love for music doesn’t sit well with other members of his village as “classical music and farming don’t mix, especially in traditional Indian cultures”[i]. Farmers meant for labour and the production of food aren’t welcome to try and ascend to higher levels where music resides.
Hence, Goopy is suitably punished by upholders of the prevalent societal system. Brahmin elders encourage him to sing for the local king at dawn, knowing it will earn him the nobleman’s wrath. A traditional patron of classical music, the King on hearing one of his subjects making a mockery of art, summons Goopy and mocks him. In the guise of asking him to identify the notes, ‘Ga’, and ‘Dha’, the king humiliates him, calling him gadha or a donkey. As Goopy’s music becomes a beast of burden for the village, he is ceremoniously exiled on an ass.
Ray is a master storyteller and perhaps his true brilliance lies in not only highlighting the caste struggle from which the banishment ensues but also mocks the upholders of this desired class purity in society. The king, a true lover of music, who is enraged enough by Goopy’s singing to order his exile, sloppily drinks a bowl of milk, breaks his beautiful tanpura and cackles as a dejected Goopy looks on. Even as this exchange is eclipsed by overwhelming gravitas of what precedes it, this offers an instance where the contradiction of the representation of refinery is presented quite plainly. The tale advances with the arrival of calamity. Goopy is now an impoverished and hungry nomadic resident of forests. The forest – a dangerous site meant for punishment, crimes and the wild – is presented by Ray, at odds with its conventional situation in Goopy’s life. It becomes a very important place, enabling the first Goopy–Bagha (the other lead of the story played by Rabi Ghosh) encounter, one that ultimately changes their lives. Bagha with his dhol (an Indian percussion instrument), an exiled musician, is initially perturbed by the presence of a stranger, but slowly relents as he realises that the two are very similar in their circumstances and aspirations, creating a deep connection. The second calamity comes in the form of a tiger, a natural force that unites the two making them turn to music as a means of protection.
Their enthusiastic performance of self-preservation incites change and blessing brought to them by the pleased Bhooter Raja (King of Ghosts) who, unlike humans is chuffed with their off-key performance and presents a performance of his own, driving home the idea of differing tastes in different beings, and cementing the connotations of historical and political allegory within the story. The three wishes that are offered by the benevolent King and Goopy–Bagha’s immediate response creates an idea of what the common Bengali man aspires towards –
“Amader jeno khaowa pora’r kono bhabna na thake […]
Amader khoob desh byaranor shokh, jodi ektu ghure-ture byarate partam […]
Raja moshai, Jodi amra gaan bajna kore lokke ektu khushi korte partam”
“If only we could stop worrying about food and clothing […]
We want to see the world. If only we could […]
If we could please people with our music”
Ray changed the order in which the wishes were presented by his grandfather, this was done to possibly highlight the importance of food in life. Food is among the most primary necessities in human life and dictates how people live and conduct themselves. It is thus imperative that food is the primary demand that comes from two exiled simpletons with little understanding of what the future might hold. This is driven home in the scene that follows immediately, where the two vagabonds stop celebrating their fortune and the new life that awaits them, as Bagha remembers:
“Kebol pete boro bhook
Na khele, nai kono shukh”
“Before the fun begins, I feel
We must have a decent meal”
The two are momentarily perplexed until Goopy suggests:
“Aaye re tobe khaowa jaak, monda–mithai chaowa jaak!”
“Wish for meat and rice, wish for all that’s nice”
And the two put their powers to the test:
“Qurma, Kalia, Pulao – jaldi lao, jaldi lao..!”
“Sweets and other treats, let’s try the trick – quick!”
As the food appears out of thin air in an extravagantly ornated set of plates and bowls, and even as the starved heroes are excited, they make time to wash their hands and clean up for the spread that awaits them. While eating ravenously, they deliberate on their futures, realising the virtue in unity and deciding to try their luck as court musicians, sparing some food and thought to a stray, sharing their fortune with the weaker and powerless creature, as little as it may be.
After a few comical errors in choosing places that offer them opportunity to test their newly acquired skills, they stumble on a “classical musicians” party on their way to participate in a contest being held in the distant Kingdom of Shundi. The fearless pair decide to follow them and test out their newly acquired musical talents and compete to impress the king. This enables Ray to provocatively anchor his tale in the two remarkably opposed kingdoms of Shundi and Halla into which the pair are transferred.
The King of Halla (the Shundi King’s twin brother) is placed under powerful magic and strong drugs are administered to him by a cunning magician Barfi, engaged by the king’s evil minister, who apart from oppressing and looting the Halla people, prepares to invade Shundi, becoming the ruler of the two lands. What stands in his way however, are two peasants from rural Bengal, who, with their magical music and wit, prevent the war, unite the two kings as long lost brothers, put an end to all conflict and those who create it, and finally establish a place where everyone ultimately lives happily ever after.
Food is used to highlight differences in the two kingdoms, the state of the people and is ultimately the weapon that prevents war. Shundi’s prosperity is displayed as Goopy and Bagha enter the kingdom through lush fields and find themselves in a market that is buzzing and full of life, though the people of the kingdom cannot talk. Unused to favours from strangers, they are suspicious and visibly delighted as a man offers them fruit out of sheer kindness – an action that indicates beyond human empathy, the economic security of the people of this land. In stark contrast we are shown repeatedly, the state of the soldiers preparing for war in Halla. Even as they train for battle against their will, we see men who are tired, shrivelled and visibly starved unlike the people in power, who are well-fed and strong.
As Goopy–Bagha enter Halla in disguise hoping to stop the war, they are immediately struck by the difference of the land, meeting prisoners of the king being taken to the palace to be punished for evading taxes. It is made clear almost immediately that these subjects haven’t eaten in days, are impoverished and the administration’s tyranny is revealed. In another instance, the evil minister is seen devouring meat in front of his employee, a spy who brings him information on Shundi. On catching the frail man staring at him eat and learning he hasn’t eating in days, the minister mocks him referring to his class, saying:
“Tomra shob shomoy khai khai koro keno bolo toh?”
“Why do you people always talk of eating?”
Ray manages to point at differences in leadership and the consequent condition of the people through these exchanges that beautifully tie the film and its message together. A slightly less subtle understanding of the circumstances of the people of Halla (quite aptly named) is provided when Goopy and Bagha are imprisoned and provided food as prisoners. At first, they question whether it’s for rats and refuse to eat even as they starve. Finally, the minister intervenes and forces them to partake in the food, provided in crude bowls, informing the two that this food is what all countrymen in the kingdom eat. What is deplorable as well, is his attitude as he refuses to allow them to wash their hands and entertains himself watching them eat unhappily.
Food is a powerful tool and often the first and most prominent reason why we go to work, or work hard. It is our most basic need, something that physically makes itself known to us at least thrice a day. It is also powerful in its ability to induce pleasure. In the face of acute starvation and poverty, a good meal becomes a much more powerful and immediate bribe than even money, and this is ultimately what turns the story around. The starved guard wakes up to finding the two prisoners – who are supposed to be much worse off than even he is – eating the most lavish meal he has ever seen, so much so that Goopy and Bagha end up having to explain to him what the individual items are called. Even as he can’t talk, he yells in excitement at the mere sight of the food. The generous prisoners use this as an opportunity to not only share their goodwill but also as a means to escape, as the guard opens the door to the jailcell and pounces on the fish head, uncaring of his duty.
Finally, the war is stopped with the use of music – the universal language of peace, and food which ends up securing the interest of the physically weak soldiers, as Goopy and Bagha call to the sky:
“Aaye, aaye, aaye re aaye, aaye re aaye, aaye re aaye,
Aaye re bojhai hari hari monda-mithai kari kari, aaye..!
Mihi dana, puli pithe, jibhe goja, mithe mithe,
Ache joto shera mishti, ashe dekho elo brishti!
Elo brishti, elo brishti, ore..!”
“Come, come, fall from heaven,
By the potful, luscious sweets –
Fall from heaven, come!”
As soldiers and even the evil minister run towards the sweets descending from the sky, there is a stampede. An opportunity to satiate greed and hunger present an unlikely diversion which enables the two musicians to restore peace to both kingdoms, leads to the capture of the villains and ensures their own security as they win the opportunity to marry princesses and elevate their status, even as the women themselves are reduced to mere prizes in this make-belief yet extremely patriarchal world[ii].
Ray, ever the visionary, planted food firmly in the story in unusual ways that highlighted the significance of nourishment in people’s lives but also of food as a commodity at a time where the country and several parts of the world were still recovering from wars and learning to undo past damage. The second instalment in the trilogy, Hirok Raja’r Deshe (1980) introduces similar instances in the narrative. Another important theme explored in this and several other of Ray’s stories was obviating the dynamics of power and greed. Goopy and Bagha were simple people who easily shared their good fortune (often in the form of food) whereas people in positions of power – most Kings and ministers, often with much more than they would be able to consume in their lifetimes, oppressed the poor and demanded more than they could ever offer.
The film is arguably the most firmly rooted in the Bengali soil, addressing issues more specific to Bengal and its people, among all his films (Pather Panchali documents the social milieu of rural Bengal in the 20th century with extreme care, sensitivity and regard to details but the broad appeal of the Apu Trilogy went beyond the specificities of its locale) explored through music and an adventure based around supernatural elements.
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, being a light and entertaining children’s tale, leans a lot on colloquialisms, witty turns of phrase, local idioms and smart but ‘rustic’ street lingo. For a non-Bengali speaking audience, therefore, much of the film’s engaging charm is easy to miss. Subtitles are unsatisfactory and the film’s spirit is lost, perhaps why it received little international recognition. Regardless, Ray’s films have inspired generations of filmmakers, and Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos is an homage to not only this children’s trilogy but more specifically the scene where food saves the day .
But is this children’s film one that should be pigeonholed as only a kids’ movie? Children are certainly likely to enjoy it most owing to its presentation, but alongside its melange of fantasy, comedy and adventure, it cites the universal themes of brotherhood, compassion, love and selflessness and makes a compelling case for peace. It can also be seen as an allegory. The theme of evil grasping at the throat of life was so apposite when an unequal war raged in Vietnam that critics and scholars have seen the movie as a commentary on the conflict too. Broadly, it remains as an ode to peace and compassion and one with a lesson for all.
 Darius Cooper’s “The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha: A Critical Rendering of a Musical Fairy tale” (2015) published in The South Asian Review, 36:1 (145-160)
Mihir Bhattacharya’s “The Disappearance of Women,” from “Conditions of Visibility: People’s Imagination and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne” and “Narrative Desire and Patriarchy” in Apu & After: Revisiting Ray’s Cinema.
Sulagna Maitra holds a diploma in Nutrition, Gastronomy and Food Trends from Le Cordon Bleu, London, and is currently a media student. When she isn’t learning about food, worrying about the planet, playing with her dog or cooking, she’s definitely watching films. Find out more about her work on https://wineandwasabi.com/