Waking up and reading about the demise of Tapen Chattopadhyay, the Bengali actor famous for playing the role of Goopy Gyne in Satyajit Ray’s Goopy-Bagha trilogy for children (the last was directed by Sandip Ray based on a story written by Satyajit Ray), the first thing I thought, like countless of Bengali people of my generation, was: “Goopy will sing no more”.
Rabi Ghosh, the freakishly gifted actor who played Goopy’s partner Bagha Byne, died ten years ago. But since he played many other memorable comic characters in Bengali movies, the conceptual connection between him and Bagha was not so ‘one-to-one’ as that between Tapen and Goopy Gyne.
Today with Tapen Chattapadhyay’s death however, one also remembers Rabi Ghosh and the partnership they forged as Goopy-Bagha, the endearing musical superheroes who would always save the day, no matter the odds. The sadness we feel today is not only for the passing of a true artist but also that of a magical age when movies were works of art, stories were true and simple, soul ruled over special effects, and characters stayed in our hearts long after the end credits had rolled.
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1968), the first in the trilogy based on characters created by Satyajit Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, was one of the first movies I ever saw in a cinema theatre, that air-conditioned house of light and shadow where I would enter a few Sundays in a year, clutching Baba’s sleeve in one hand and in the other a trusty Kwality Choco-bar, my most favorite ice-cream in the whole wide world.
For those who do not know the legend of Goopy-Bagha a little introduction. Singer Goopy and drummer Bagha were rural simpletons with two common traits, an unquenchable desire to express themselves musically and a total lack of any talent. Thrown out from their respective villages by angry citizens and the king for their tuneless singing and rhythmless drumming, they retired to the forest. There however, their singing and drumming was music to the ear of the King of Ghosts (yes more than a bit of resemblance to the legend of Himesh Reshammiya) and his army of happy spirits. Being denizens of a higher plane of existence, they appreciated the netherwordly charms of Goopy and Bagha’s music and broke into a grand group dance.
Pleased by their ability, The King of Ghosts granted the duo three wishes—–the ability to get any clothes and any food they want by merely clapping their hands, a pair of golden shoes by which they could be teleported anywhere in the world and the power to make such beautiful music that would make people stay frozen to the spot (shades of Harry Potter’s Petrificus Totalus). Armed with these magic spells, Goopy and Bagha walked the earth till they came to Shundi, a peaceful kingdom under threat from the kingdom of Halla. There with the help of song, dance, much bumbling and laughter, Goopy and Bagha spoil the plans of the evil war-mongering minister of Halla, the person who was precipitating the conflict (with whom I nowadays find an uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney), restore peace to the world and get married to the princesses.
I saw Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne in 1979 when I was four years old. I don’t remember much of what exactly I loved but I do remember laughing through all of it. After all a movie with magic, beautiful songs, the antics of Goopy and Bagha, the dance of fat ghosts and memorably funny evil characters just could not go wrong. It was however on subsequent viewings of this classic, and I have seen it many times, that I not only saw the political subtext but appreciated the subtle nuances of Satyajit Ray’s craft—– his ability of underplaying humor and his use of irony, the poetry of the songs and the beauty of the music (he was the lyricist and music director), the genius of the “dance of the ghosts” special effects [Video] and the magical “bringing-a-lump-to-the-throat” sequence when at the crack of dawn, Goopy and Bagha discover their metamorphosis into actual musicians, their faces alight with wonder, catching the rays of the sun as Anup Ghosal’s ethereal voice sings “Dekho re nayan mele jogoter bahaar” [Open your eyes and witness the beauty of the world], the most beautifully symbolic depiction of artistic awakening I have seen captured on screen, a cinematic equivalent of Tagore’s “Nirjhorer Sopnobhongo”.
In 1980, the sequel Hirok Rajar Deshe (In the land of the Diamond King) released, twelve years after the original. The expectation was thick in the air, cinema halls were booked full. I remember going in with my parents and the moment Tapen Chattopadhyay and Rabi Ghosh came on the screen, in full color, the entire hall exploded. In this installment, Goopy and Bagha lock horns with the evil Hirok Raja (made unforgettable by the genius of Utpal Datta), a king who with the help of an equally wicked scientist-magician has made a Brainwashing machine into which he throws in his subjects and makes them into zombies. Then they are put to work in diamond mines, minting money for him. Goopy and Bagha join hands with the dissident Udayan Pandit, played by Ray favorite Soumitro Chatterjee, who is Hirok Raja’s enemy numero uno because he wants the citizens of the kingdom to be educated and liberated in spirit, something that Hirok Raja dreads. And again after a series of hilarious adventures including Goopy Bagha’s run-in with a tiger and the evil magician and his machine, Hirok Raja and his band of sycophantic ministers are overthrown and happiness reigns.
Hirok Rajar Deshe might not have the joyous simplicity of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne but it more than makes up for it with its astringent satire and more nuanced political undertones, Hirok Raja being the archetypal corrupt and megalomaniac totalitarian ruler,who bases his rule on the “brain-washing” power of propaganda, mis-education, re-writing of history and the merciless suppression of all dissent. The final scene of Hirak Rajar Deshe where liberated subjects rush out and pull down giant statues of Hirok Raja while singing “Dori dhore maaro taan, Raja hobe khaankhaan” (Pull at the rope and destroy the power of the King) was Ray’s prophecy for the regimes that ruled through the “cult of the personality” and within a few years identical scenes would be repeated across Europe as the Berlin Wall, statues of Lenin and Ceaucescu would come down in exactly the same way.
The last movie of the trilogy Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (1991) was a disappointment. Directed by Sandip Ray, based on a story by Satyajit Ray at a time when the master was seriously ill, it did not match up cinematically to the standards of the preceding two. Storywise, it was excellent though—being the darkest of the three. Goopy and Bagha are getting old and when another evil sorcerer promises to turn their ages back twenty years if they steal for him, they give into the dark side of the force. But they ultimately realize the folly of their ways, guided by their moral compass—-the King of the Ghosts and foil the plans of the evil sorcerer. Goopy Bagha Phire Elo was beautiful in that it captured the tragedy of aging brilliantly with a sequence where Goopy and Bagha make peace with the inevitability of 0ld age by saying “As long as one gets wiser and earns more respect, growing old is actually a step up” being a personal favorite of mine. Such moments of brilliance were however few and far in between, the acting from the side characters overtly theatrical, the direction from Sandip Ray not as sharp and the music, the life-blood of the series, quite definitely weak in comparison to the other two.
So what was the secret behind the success of the characters of Goopy and Bagha? First of all, they were golden-hearted simpletons—-one could empathize with them far easier than with two other popular literay creations of Ray—the super-genius Shanku and the uber-cool Feluda. Second, Tapen Chattopadhyay and Rabi Ghosh were masterful actors with brilliant comic timing, their chemistry unsurpassed and I wonder whether anyone else could have breathed so much life into these characters as they did. Third, Goopy and Bagha captured the essential Bengali character—–they would break out of prison by offering the guard a tasty head of fish and stop wars by raining magical milk-based sweets from the heavens. And like Bengalis, they had the wanderlust, wondering from place to place: bonete, pahare, moruprantore (in the forest, in the mountains and in the desert) whenever they felt frustrated with life. Food, sleep, travel and music—-that was all they had and all they wanted. What could be more heroic to a Bengali than that?
The characters we grow up with become an intrinsic part of who we are. So it is only natural that the demise of the faces we associate with those characters will cause us sorrow . At the same time, let us however take solace in the fact that Goopy has finally joined Bagha in the happy land of the ghosts where they shall lighten up the world beyond with their sense of humor and song.
And maybe another generation of Goopys and Baghas, while wandering into the forest or surfing on Youtube, will encounter the King of Ghosts and be blessed once again with the “jobor jobor teen bor” (The Three Great Blessings) of friendship, music and innocence.