Enchantment as Pedagogy in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha)
By Paromita Patranobish
In this article, I wish to examine the particular ideological function and semiotic valence of music in Satyajit Ray’s 1968 film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, henceforth GGBB) as an expressive modality made to traverse seemingly polarised forms of instruction/pedagogy and enchantment/fantasy. How does Ray’s attempt to indigenise the musical by locating it within a folkloric tradition inherited from his grandfather, relate to his suspicion of the spectacular and purportedly superfluous use of music in popular cinema? Does his nativist appropriation of the vernacular by elevating it to the realm of technological modernity serve the twin purposes of distancing his own craft simultaneously from the Western bourgeois encoding of the cinematic apparatus on the one hand, and the domain of imitative popular aesthetics on the other?
With these questions as an informing frame, I seek to assess Ray’s use of music as a thematic component and narrative element imbued with a strong message and instructional dimension, but also staging from within its own internal workings, modes of transcending this instrumentalist function, and creating an alternative affective topos where it can exist in different, socially unaccommodated, insurrectionary registers. I will examine this tension in Ray’s use of the musical as a hybrid form of, at once, non-diegetic storytelling, ethical address, and performative enactment of fantasy. The kinaesthetic possibilities of performed music in GGBB either in the non-verbal, asignifying qualities of voice, pitch, tempo, intonation, rhythm, faciality, and gesture, or in the film’s metadiscursive representation of the effects of music on its audience, are closely tied to its conception of fantasy. Secondly, I will analyse the figure of the spectre and the spectral origins of Goopy’s and Bagha’s music, a stock character in Bengali folklore, but given the place of a deus-ex-machina, a conjuror with his own set of audio-visual technology whose quasi-directorial vantage and moral pedagogy makes him a direct stakeholder in the film’s socio-political concerns, primarily concerns pertaining to fair and benevolent uses of technology including the techne of music. The musical uncanny in GGBB then is deeply motivated by Ray’s own contextual field, post-independence cinema, and its attendant challenges. As Srirupa Roy demonstrates, in the decades immediately after independence and the formation of a centralised national film board, the doctrinaire function of cinema came to rest on its ability to interpellate a new constituency of cinema goers in the codes of a national subjectivity (Roy 2002).
In his book on cinema, Satyajit Ray criticises popular cinema for its subservience to a homogenizing formula with “the longest and most lucrative existence” determined by the market and “evolved out of the producer’s deliberate and sustained playing down to a vast body of unsophisticated audience brought up on the simple tradition of the jatra, a form of rural drama… broad gestures, loud rhetoric, and simple emotional patterns” (1976: 40). He designates the overt and inconsistent use of music in commercial Hindi cinema as an “occasional escape through relaxation” for “tired untutored minds with undeveloped needs” for whom the “best prescription is a well-mixed potpourri of popular entertainment” (73). The “sustained sense of nonreality” that Ray finds antithetical to “the vitality of the medium” is according to him the “only available inexpensive entertainment” that meets for the “vast conglomerate mass that makes up the Indian public” the “craving for spectacle, for romance, for a funny turn or two, for singing and dancing” (16-17). This is further corroborated by Ray’s insistence on the contemporary value of realist cinema: “For the truly serious, socially conscious filmmaker, there can be no prolonged withdrawal into fantasy. He must face the challenge of contemporary reality, examine the facts, probe them, sift them, and select from them the material to be transformed into the stuff of cinema” (41).
As in his science fiction, Ray sees the everyday as an immensely fertile resource for cinematic appropriation. How does one reconcile this realist protocol with the elaborate construction of a fantastic landscape in the Goopy-Bagha trilogy? And if realism is identified as the form most compatible with the pedagogic function of the state in relation to its citizen-viewers, how far is Ray’s own output as a filmmaker enmeshed in this pedagogic understanding of cinema as a discourse connected with the socio-cultural climate of its production, and the “mass” as an easily manipulable, unreflecting composite? Ray’s distancing from the domain of popular aesthetics or popular subjectivity makes the issue of his audience a complex one, and by extension raises questions about the ideological agenda informing his cinema. An analysis of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne should begin to my mind on the premise of its formal divergence from Ray’s social realist trend, but only to recognize the peculiar nature of the fantastic expounded in the film, which is never too far from the contemporary.
The various trajectories of music in GGBB are thus informed by and aimed to dialogically engage with debates about the social value of cinema in the context of the postcolonial developmentalist welfare state. The moral, social, and pedagogic underpinnings of music as technology of enchantment is part of this wider field of engagement. In GGBB the supernaturally sanctioned ‘pure’, autonomous, and non-utilitarian music of the protagonists is interspersed between on the one hand the institutionalisation, codification, and control of music by the cohorts of the privileged few, and on the other hand, the abuse of artistic and technical know-how as mechanisms of totalitarian regimes. Thus, Goopy and Bagha as untrained and materially unendowed musicians find themselves exiled for their desire to practice their craft in defiance of class and caste prohibitions and independent of patronage or affiliation. As an outcast having left the village, Goopy replaces his norm bound classical singing with a spontaneous and private travelling song about his emotional state. The haunted forest to which he arrives serves as a liminal space that accommodates different expressive patterns, unlike the divided structure of human society with its hierarchy of modes of expression. The forest represents a domain of pleasure uninhibited by questions of class and status. It is a territory that allows Goopy and Bagha the physical and creative freedom to invent their own music unconstrained by the demands of artistic norm, a music that erupts in moments of practical crisis and is articulated through simple melody, free and unregulated movement, and lyrics that are derived out of immediate experience. But it is also a terrain in which Goopy and Bagha can partake of the entire elaborate panoply of the musical canon, thus overturning the standards of visibility that control the display and experience of the high arts. In the hands of the ghosts that inhabit the forest, music turns into a mode of critiquing human society, while the ghost king’s nasal speech sung in rhyming couplets along with the three boons of plenitude he grants to Goopy and Bagha become symptoms of an alternative ethic of musical expression, guided by the norm of endless productivity and democratic distribution. Ray seems to uphold an ideal of popularization of the arts, a condition of guaranteed access to the resources of artistic expression in the public sphere. In conjunction with Ray’s critique of popular cinema, this is not a contradiction, because what the fantasy of superabundant music (food and clothing) seems to suggest is a desire for the popularization of the conditions of access and production as opposed to what he identifies as the hegemony of the popular as a market driven field of self-replicating, indoctrinating aesthetic forms.
The three boons not only give Goopy and Bagha inexhaustible access to musical and gastronomic resources, thus invalidating the economy of commerce and exchange, the third clause demanded by Goopy, converts the pursuit of music from being a selfish accomplishment into an altruistic practice aimed at the possibility of “entertaining” others. Goopy’s desire is to make people “happy” by playing music (he uses the word “khushi” which could imply a cluster of emotions ranging from happiness to pleasure to satisfaction) an altruism that is coextensive with the cinema itself. Ray’s use of the genre of the musical hence is not just an aesthetic choice relating to the formal flexibility of music and its ability to engage the senses but is part of a larger democratic approach to the question of aesthetic ownership and the ethics of its use. In the next scene, Goopy and Bagha participate in a musical contest in the kingdom of Shundi. In Shundi, a country continually threatened by and on the verge of war with its rival principality, music takes on a particular poignancy as an absence of spoken language is compensated for by an abundance of musical and creative arts. The social use of Goopy’s and Bagha’s music begins with Bagha’s generous playing of the drum to entertain two wayside children who accost them. The cultivated, standardized, and ornate music of the various participating maestros, whose preparations are presented with a degree of caricature, is juxtaposed with the spontaneous and personalized music of Goopy and Bagha. They break out of the norms of musical performance by rushing to the middle of the stage space, thus destabilizing spatial demarcations and ossified codes of courtly conduct by inscribing the moving, energetic, animated body into it and combining dance, narrative, and music. The song they present becomes a manifesto of their musical agenda. Constructing themselves as visitors from Bengal and having no other language at their disposal but their mother tongue they express their wish to communicate through the universal idiom of rhythm, melody, beats, and pleasure (“shurer i bhasha, chhonder i bhasha, taaler i bhasha, anaonder i bhasha“). The theme of the song argues for the possibility of an intercultural mode of communication through the medium of music. The song creates a continuum of common pleasure, as the audience present despite their affiliation to separate musical styles sway to the beat of Bagha’s drum. It synchronizes the disparate crowd and by extension the divergent musical styles through the common experience of enchantment. However, this is a language that combines the universal extra-linguistic components of music with a verbal discourse carried out in terms of a particular regional language, and while the former inserts what Carol Flinn identifies as “its so-called failure to produce concrete meaning, [in] its inability to conduct the listener to fixed references, its irrationality and emotionalism, its very invisibility,” through which “music challenges some of dominant representation’s most cherished axioms, such as its impulse towards rationalism and the epistemological privilege awarded vision” (Flinn, 1986: 61), the function of the songs within the film’s universe is largely dependent on their linguistic component as well. In fact, one could argue that the representation of musical language as an extra-linguistic cluster of rhythm, tonality, and melody that challenges the rigid associations of logocentric discourse, only serves to blunt the fully ideological potential of its linguistic aspect, one that empowers Goopy and Bagha with the power of critique and commentary, by operating within the logic of the same signifying practice, as Ian Andrews suggests, “while the place of music, in its ‘pure’ state, is largely that of the semiotic, it does, however, operate according to a cultural logic that rests within the symbolic” (1990: 4). Goopy and Bagha’s charmed music which freezes and transfixes the listeners for the duration of their performance, becomes a meta-narrative within which the fantastical trope of enchantment converges with the linguistic act of social critique. Enchantment as a physiological effect of Goopy and Bagha’s supernatural music is realized at the level of psychology as its direct opposite – a disenchanting experience that allows the listener to question and reflect upon the existing order of things. Within the structural specificities of the film, music is not just an auditory experience; rather enchantment becomes a mode of visualizing the music itself; enchantment as a symbolic form of extreme attention, and a focalizing device. Ray extends the polarization between the two kings of Halla and Shundi, into an elaborate depiction of two polarized political systems, one based on an ideology of peace, plenty, and benevolent rule, the other operating through despotism, conquest, and deprivation; one functioning through the creative possibility of the arts, the other through the divisive fascination for war; one represented through a symbolism of plenitude and natural beauty, the other as a barren landscape. However, this straightforward binary is complicated by representing the various modes through which subordination works. The wizardry of the magician Barfi aims at controlling the psyche of the king of Halla, feeding him on an ideology of despotism, transforming him from a peaceful ruler into a drug induced aggressor whose very sense of authority is ironically a symptom of his lack of agency. If the magician’s drug controls by destroying the ability for independent thought, Goopy and Bagha’s music restores this capacity for discernment, regenerates repressed memory, and resurrects subconscious affects. From the fourth song, music becomes an instrument facilitating their mission of rescuing the king of Halla. The functional value of music after Goopy and Bagha reach Halla is doubly as what Vladimir Propp calls a “magical agent” and a mode of interpretation that serves to analyse (“Ore Bagha”), condemn/ forewarn (“O Mantri Moshai”), philosophize upon (“Ek Je Chhilo Raja”), and instruct (“O Re Baba Dekho Re”), but above all to communicate.
As a parallel narrative and an interpretive praxis, the songs intervene in the linear development of narrative, insert an alternative temporality, bring the action to a standstill, introspect upon the moral dilemmas of the situation, suggest remedial modes of behaviour, and bring about a transformation in the listener. The instructional value of Goopy and Bagha’s music becomes symptomatic of the power of linguistic representation and extra-linguistic address to control thought, and through a process of juxtaposition, acts as a reflection upon all other forms of representation in the world of the film. In one of the songs, Goopy, sitting inside a prison translates this condition of captivity into a metaphor for a larger metaphysical condition of human bondage. To the accompaniment of the minimalist strains of a one-stringed instrument, this melancholy song expounds a simple existential contradiction about the king’s imprisonment within the walls of his own palace, and the sorrow (“dukkho“) that arises out of plenty. As the camera pans from the prison cell to the king’s chamber to a panoramic view of the fortress and the landscape beyond, the song seems to break the spell of counterfeit identities and false ambitions that seems to pervade the whole ideology of conquest, retribution, and violence ruling the kingdom of Halla.
Music then enters the ideological struggle between the competing discourses of power as uninterrupted control of bodies and properties represented by the symbolic interpellation produced by the drug; of violence that informs the deluded king’s song (“Halla cholechhe juddhe“); and of freedom as an interior state (“ask the king to forsake his throne /and roam about in the field instead”) put forth by the message of the song. Music works with the combined strength of non-verbal sound, language, and photographic imagery to demonstrate the critical reach of its discourse, as opposed to the close shot of the king’s chamber and the lack of musical accompaniment to his song, indicating the myopic nature of his thought. The peripeteia (reversal) that Goopy’s and Bagha’s music brings about, actualized in the king’s final resistance to being drugged, is however powerless without the agency of magic.
Returning to a fantastical mode, the magic of the three boons makes possible an invasion of a different kind, an invasion of pleasure signalled by the pots of sweets that rain down from the sky, an occupation of a starved, oppressed state engorged with falsifications, fed on a diet of violence and fear, by the rebelling forces of human desire for gratification. More than any moral awakening, the fantastical resources of Goopy and Bagha enable a revival of the power of the desiring masses. In that sense, the film seems to suggest not only the value of Goopy and Bagha’s ethical pedagogy, it also affirms the value of a particular approach to the sociological question of civic rights. The pedagogy in Ray’s fantasy is then closely connected with the question of the right political structure and the right model of governance, which as the discourse of the songs show, is embedded not only in the arrangement of institutions but in the psyche of the governed, an idea that will find more concrete elaboration in the next film in Ray’s Goopy Bagha trilogy.
Andrews, Ian. “Music, Desire and the Social.” NMA 8,1990.
Flinn, Carol. “The ‘Problem’ of Femininity in Theories of Film Music.” Screen 27: 6, 1986. pp 56–73.
Ray, Satyajit. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) 1968, 132 min. B/W and colour, in Bengali with subtitles.
Ray, Satyajit. Our Films Their Films. (1976) New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2018.
Roy, Srirupa. “Moving Pictures: The Postcolonial state and visual representations of India.” Contributions to Indian Sociology 36. New Delhi: Sage, 2002.
Paromita Patranobish is an academic based in New Delhi. She has a PhD in Modernist Literature and Visual Culture with a focus on non-human embodiment in works of Virginia Woolf and British Post-Impressionism. She has taught at Shiv Nadar University, Daulat Ram College, and Ambedkar University Delhi.
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