While scripting what would go down as the most distinct departure from his cinematic style, Satyajit Ray hit a roadblock in 1967. When his friend, biographer Marie Seton, called on him in December that year, the auteur told her that short of pawning “his books and records”, he was almost back to the same state he was in while raising funds for his first feature, Pather Panchali (1955). Twelve years and 14 feature films later — which bought him international fame and established him as a master of realistic cinema — Ray had no producer for his dream-project Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha), a magical tale about the exploits of two tone-deaf musicians, Goopy and Bagha.
Financing a movie that was described as “a musical fantasy for children” — a genre that was unheard of till then — was a risk few wanted to take. In the year 1967, the Bengal film industry was facing a financial downturn. An increasing number of film technicians were struggling to find employment as fewer movies were produced that year compared to the previous years. It was a time of political upheaval, too, as the state’s governor dismissed the United Front government. “By spring 1968, film workers had gone on strike to draw attention to the Hindi films’ threat to the survival of Bengali film production,” writes Seton, in her biography of Ray, Portrait of a Director (1971).
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne neither featured a heroine nor the tried-and-tested romantic angle. The film also involved special effects that was going to shoot the budget up to Rs 6.5 lakh. Ray’s regular producer since Mahanagar (1963), RD Bansal, backed out as he had “a sudden loss of confidence”. The plans of making the movie in Hindi, too, fell through. Ray was under pressure to cast popular actors instead of then lesser-known actors Rabi Ghosh and Tapen Chatterjee in the lead roles of Bagha and Goopy, respectively. Andrew Robinson in The Inner Eye (1989), a book on the filmmaker, writes that “Ray found himself casting around for finance in both Calcutta and Bombay, seeing his hopes alternately raised and then dashed”.
Ray, however, wasn’t about to compromise on how he chose to tell the story of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — originally written and illustrated by his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury in 1915. Seton in Portrait of a Director mentions that “a particular Bombay star” offered to finance the movie. However, it came with the rider that his brother and his father be allowed to play leading roles in it. “Satyajit could not be forced to compromise on a film he loved the thought of…Though at that moment he had no idea where finance might now come from, he seemed to know with certainty that in the end he would succeed in getting the money,” writes Seton.
The story Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne was first published as a short story in the Bengali children’s magazine Sandesh, founded in 1912 by Upendrakishore. Ray was in love with the story ever since he first read it as an eight-year-old. When he revived Sandesh in 1961, after it remained shut for nearly three decades, this was one of the first stories he republished. This is also the story Ray — by then established as an auteur with movies such as The Apu Trilogy, Jalsaghar (1958) and Devi (1960) — would think of adapting on the big screen when he wanted to try his hand at a new genre.
Though it was originally a four-page story, Ray tweaked it to introduce drama and songs. He composed and wrote all of the latter. The script followed the adventures of Goopy, a terrible singer, and Bagha, a terrible drummer, who are banished from their respective villages and bump into each other in a forest. The two form a friendship and even find a patron in the king of ghosts, who grants them three boons — to be able to get delicious food by clapping their hands; travel anywhere they wish to by wearing magical shoes; and transfix their audience whenever they perform. Soon, they land their dream job as court musicians in the kingdom of Shundi. When the King of Halla declares war against Shundi, they volunteer to resolve the crisis. Their plan goes awry and lands them in prison, but they escape in time to foil the plan of Halla’s war-mongering evil minister.
At the time, Ray had just finished with Charulata (1964). He experienced an artistic high with the movie he called his “most perfect” work. It brought him the Best Director award at the Berlin International Film Festival (1965) and the Best Film recognition at the National Film Awards (1964) back home. The period that followed, considered to be his most experimental phase, would also prove to be difficult for him. His movies, double-bill Kapurush-o-Mahapurush (1965) and Nayak (1966), had not done well at the box-office. With the production of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne held up, he helmed the whodunnit, Chiriakhana (1967), to bail out his assistants. Ray would call it his “weakest” film, notwithstanding its commercial success. Worse, Ray’s ambitious project, The Alien, a science-fiction based on his short story Bankubabur Bandhu (Banku Babu’s Friend, published in Sandesh in 1962), was going nowhere in spite of Columbia Pictures backing it and Marlon Brando coming on board. Years later, allegations of The Alien’s script being plagiarised would surface when Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) released.
Disillusioned with Hollywood, Ray spent most of the year 1967 waiting for a producer for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. His preparation for the movie was already complete. “He had composed and recorded six songs for the movie; he had a sketchbook full of designs for the costumes so that they could be made immediately and another sketchbook contained his detailed drawings of sets. They were more elaborate than any of his previous sets and they were conceived in colour,” Seton writes.
“Just before Christmas, 1967, the money unexpectedly appeared, from the producers Nepal and Asim Dutta, but sadly, not enough to shoot in colour,” Robinson writes. “The filming started in 1968. Locations were locked much in advance as my father wanted to do the outdoor shoot in Rajasthan. He regretted not being able to shoot the Golden Fort in Jaisalmer in colour, where most of the Halla portions were shot. He fulfilled this wish when he made his Feluda novel, Sonar Kella, into a movie in 1974,” recalls Ray’s son, Sandip, 65. Interestingly, in the film’s last sequence, Ray switched to colour and spiffed up his lead characters. “It is a tribute to Ray, and to Bansi Chandragupta (production designer) in particular, that really it is not until that scene that viewers realise what they have been missing; one Bengali I know even thought the entire film was in colour,” writes Robinson.
The film released on May 29, 1969. “Initial box-office reports were not encouraging. Within a few days, word-of-mouth appreciation for the movie ensured that the collections picked up. People started humming the songs. It ran for eight months. It turned out to be a stupendous success, a record for Bengali cinema, and, my father’s highest grossing movie,” says Sandip.
Director-actor Tinnu Anand, one of the assistant directors on the movie, recalls how within days of its release, children could be found singing the songs. “It went beyond being a children’s film or sending out messages against war and evil. Even if Manikda had a message, he never believed in shouting it out. He was confident that if he could make a movie about a grim subject, he could make a great entertainer, too,” recalls Anand. The movie, one of Ray’s most innovative, bagged the Best Feature Film and Best Direction awards at the National Film Awards in 1970.
The story, since its eventful cinematic outing 50 years ago, has been revisited by many in various forms — puppet shows, plays and story books. “Being the coolest filmmaker of them all, Ray creates an amazing world in this movie. This is really like early Harry Potter — a world you want to live in,” says filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh, an ardent fan of Ray. Author Salman Rushdie, in his collection of essays, Imaginary Homeland (1991), acknowledges Ray’s influence on him. He compares the movie’s popularity in Bengal to that of The Wizard of Oz (1939) in the West. The Booker Prize-winner even paid a piscine tribute to the filmmaker in his 1990-fantasy novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Two Plentimaw fish that Haroun encounters during his journey to the Land of Chup are Goopy and Bagha.
The latest to retell the story is animator Shilpa Ranade who has directed Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya, that has been produced by the Children’s Film Society India in association with Karadi Tales Company. The film released on March 1. Ranade thought of making the animation movie while going through writer-filmaker Gulzar’s retelling of the story, also titled Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya (2010). She was the book’s illustrator. “I was 16 when I first watched Ray’s film. Getting to illustrate the book itself was intimidating. However, when I worked on the book, I thought it lent itself beautifully to an animation movie. The original story is short. Yet, it gives you the framework to come up with your version and build on it,” she says. For the illustrator-animator, who teaches animation at IIT-Bombay, the story’s enduring appeal is in its “simplicity” and “universal values”. “There is an innocence to the story. That’s why people connect to it easily,” says Ranade. Co-owner of Karadi Tales, Narayan Parsuram, who has also composed the movie’s music, says: “It also sends out a powerful though subtle message against war.”
The strong anti-war message aside, the film showcases an iconic six-and-a-half-minute dance sequence, featuring ghosts. It is said to be Ray’s critique of the Indian caste system. He created four groups of ghosts, roughly corresponding to each caste. Each group performs to a distinct rhythmic pattern. In the end, the four classes of ghosts are placed vertically, with the priests at the bottom and the common man at the top, upending the social hierarchy. “Since not much technical advancement was made then, this scene involved a lot of hard work. It was created in a Mumbai studio,” says Sandip.
After the release of the film, Sandip remembers his father being flooded with calls and letters from viewers. “Since he did not have any assistant, he used to answer the calls and reply to the letters himself,” he says. However, foreign critics found it too long and the trick effects weak. Some Indian critics thought Ray was playing to the gallery. Ray, however, was proud of it. In the anthology of essays, Deep Focus, while talking about the role of film critics, Ray writes: “One — allegedly discerning — critic remarked apropos of my previous film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, that it gave a clear indication of the director’s striving to pander to the box-office. And this about a film that broke completely fresh ground, was based on a comparatively unknown story by an author who was certainly not Sarat Chandra Chatterjee in popularity, used no stars, cast a completely unknown artiste and another comparatively unknown in two leading roles, used songs entirely legitimately perhaps for the first time, inserted a near-abstract dance, seven minutes long to the music of abstract and unfamiliar south Indian percussion and, finally, provided no romance, no sentimentality and only two females who appear for barely five minutes in the very last scene of the film. How discerning can you get?”
Escape into this fantasy did wonders for Ray’s career. “The movie’s success rejuvenated my father, who had to face setbacks in the late ’60s,” says Sandip. An elated Ray later wrote to Seton: “It is extraordinary how quickly it has become part of popular culture. Really there isn’t a single child who doesn’t know and sing the songs.” Ray soon moved on to adapt a novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay, Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) for the screen. In the years that followed, Ray would direct his famous Calcutta trilogy — Pratidwandi (1971), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1975). He followed it up with Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) and Ghare Baire (1984), among others.
Much after their first outing, Goopy and Bagha continued to save the world with their magical powers. Giving in to the demand for the next installment of Goopy and Bagha’s adventure, Ray made Hirak Rajar Deshe (Kingdom of Diamonds) 11 years later, in 1980. The movie made after the Emergency is a veiled political commentary by Ray — he created an autocratic king (played by Utpal Dutt) who recalibrates his subjects to stay in power. The movie ends with Goopy and Bagha promising the audience that they’d be back.
It would take them over a decade to keep that promise. The legendary filmmaker brought Goopy Bagha back in Goopy Bagha Phire Elo, for which he wrote the script and composed songs. Because of his failing health, however, he passed the directorial baton to Sandip. The movie released on January 3, 1992. Three months later, the filmmaker breathed his last on April 23.
This has not stopped fans from periodically asking Sandip to continue with the franchise. “I have been contemplating introducing the sons of Goopy and Bagha to the audience to carry forward the legacy created by my grandfather and father, but I don’t really have a time frame in mind,” says Sandip.