Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha)

Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is wondrous and dull in the way The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine is wondrous and dull. Both came out in 1968; both pit hapless, child-like musicians against evil expansionist regimes; both celebrate the power of music to knit people together across political and cultural divides.

Both are also essentially translations from one medium to another, and suffer a little in leaving their home genres. Where Yellow Submarine tries to plump up a few Beatles hits into a single story, Ray takes his grandfather’s original tale—itself a sort of redaction of various folk tales—and stretches it over 132 minutes of continuous, stuck-in-your-seat movie action. The result’s a sequence of loosely woven, cleverly realized episodes that don’t quite add up to a plot.

Threading through the movie is a persistent concern with the touchy relationship between artists and their audience, and the tissue of entitlement and expectation that connects them. Goopy and Bagha start the film as Beatles in reverse: awful musicians belittled and banished by their local rajas for their clumsy din. Playing together in a forest, they manage to gratify the upside-down aesthetics of the King of Ghosts, who grants them three wishes. Being working artists, they want first of all to eat; secondly, to travel; and only finally to impress people with their music. When night arrives, Bagha realizes they’ve forgotten to wish for a place to live. So they determine to win the singing contest in the Kingdom of Shundi, where every inhabitant but the king is struck dumb, making all the musicians imports. Goopy and Bagha sing; Goopy and Bagha win; Goopy and Bagha foil an attack from the king’s evil twin, urged to war by a sinister prime minister and his wizard; Goopy and Bagha marry the kings’ daughters and end at the credits as princes.

Ray made the film in the Rajasthani desert, and the movie revels in long, deep-focus shots that frame the actors against wide, flat, empty expanses.* The effect is to accentuate the fundamental loneliness of Bagha and Goopy, who trade the hierarchical bonds of village life for the vagaries of audience approval. At the beginning of the movie, Goopy shakes his new tampura at a ploughman and shouts: “Ploughing for you, singing for me!” Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is in one sense an extended meditation on what this assertion might mean. Goopy and Bagha live exclusively by and for their art, free from the pressures of workaday labor. But they’re also subject to whimsical rajas, in steady competition with other singers, unmoored from family and home. (Bagha tells Goopy at one point that he has no family, he’s completely alone in the world.) The musicians’ own alliance is practical rather than feelingful; the mercenary, tobacco-smoking, id-driven Bagha sticks with Goopy’s Gilligan mostly because they can’t get their wishes unless they slap hands with each other.

Against Bagha and Goopy’s magical sounds are a number of silent or “nonstandard Bengali-speaking” characters: the subjects of Shundi, made dumb by a plague; the evil wizard, who speaks a made-up language of his own; the King of Ghosts, who talks in speedy Martian rhyme; his ghost dancers, who pantomime a sort of allegory of India's history; the soldiers who freeze, unspeaking, whenever Goopy and Bagha play. In their key competition number, Goopy himself apologizes for singing in a foreign language (Bengali is apparently non-native to the imaginary Shundi). A magic powder at the end of the movie restores the power of proper speech—and song—to everyone in the kingdom. With Goopy and Bagha married off into the royal family, all wishes fulfilled, this democratic spell could be read as a passing of the creative baton from the "enchanted" artist to society as a whole: the folk song given back, at last, to the folk.

*Just the opposite of the cramped interior spaces of


Brandon Downing said...

How'd you find this DVD, Rodney? I was looking for this for such a long time a while back, with noooo luck. I wanna see this!


rodney k said...

Hi Brandon,

Shhh! They've got it in fourteen ten-minute segments on YouTube.

Aryanil Mukhopadhyay said...

Well, these are not on youtube any more. I have VHS/DVD/VCD copies of this film. All of them may not have subtitles on them. Sure can loan them out at no charge. Write to me if you need the movie.