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Saree-r paar, rosogolla, and Ray

By Aratrika Das

The first part of the title of this paper is inspired from an embroidered blouse-design called ‘Kaberi Basu blouse’. Dhakai embroidered on raw silk, the design on this blouse is borrowed from the paar (border) of the saree worn by Kaberi Basu in a scene of Satyajit Ray’s film, Aranyer Dinratri (1970). Parama, the Kolkata-based designer, whose blouse-design I refer to, also draws the ‘Devi’ poster made by Ray on one of her blouses. Her Facebook page says: “The blouse is an embroidered translation of a hand drawn poster for Satyajit Ray’s film, Devi which was neither printed nor ever used. I fell in love with it as much as I loved the one that was used.” Another Kolkata-based clothing brand, ‘Ghuri by Debjani’, embroiders the dartboard Kali design used by Ray in a scene from Joy Baba Felunath (1979) on one of her blouses. One of her other embroidered blouses called ‘the Hairpin blouse’, uses the chuler kanta (hairpin) from Ray’s film Ghore Bhaire (1984). Both designers remember the little details from Ray’s films – paar of a saree in a scene that is populated by faces of Bengali cinema’s handsome men like Soumitra Chatterjee and Shubhendu Chatterjee, or a dartboard in a film with indelible dialogues of Santosh Dutta and Utpal Dutta. Little details like these from Ray’s films were curated by Mumbai’s designer store ‘Melange’ on the 100th anniversary of Indian cinema. The event, ‘Ray’s Cinema’, turned the store into an art gallery for a day, and showcased thirty prints of clothing and jewellery used in Ray’s films. The photographs showcased were taken by the renowned photographer Nemai Ghosh and were acquired by the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), which co-hosted the event.

My first memory of Ray’s cinema is a plate of food: pulao, mangsho, maacher muro, torkari, luchi, bhaja, pulao, ghonto, dal, chingri, illish, bhetki, chaatni, misti doi, sandesh, raj bhog. I did not pay attention to the song, “bhooter raja dilo bor” (the King of Ghosts grants a boon), playing in Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen (The Adventures of Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne, the first film of the series Goopy and Bagha, 1969). All I remember is what happens towards the end of the song: two huge circular silver plates emerge; then several silver bowls quickly appear in succession, filled with food; and Goopy and Bagha chew, masticate, make sounds, and eat this endless supply. By the time misti (sweets) appears, Goopy is so satiated that he throws some to a hungry dog. I remember my younger self, watching this scene with rapt attention in Dinobondhu Manch, the only theatre then in our moffusil town Siliguri, beside my daadu (grandfather). My attention was on the eating taking place onscreen: holding every morsel of food in their hands, Goopy and Bagha savour every bite; they laugh, lick their lips, and relish their food. The younger me could smell the gorom mangsho-bhaat (hot rice with mutton curry) and, I am quite sure, opened her mouth, to gobble, imaginatively, the big raj bhog (large rosogolla) from the screen. Happy faces, laughing, talking, and eating. This was a moment of utmost beauty to me. And the subsequent scenes of Goopy and Bagha travelling, singing, and then eating delightful dishes are forever etched into my memory as signs of happiness and bliss. There was nothing flattering about these scenes of eating. This is how I chewed on when I, as a young girl, was hungry. This is how I dreamt of eating misti when I was pregnant a year ago.

The same film showcases desperately hungry faces. Everyone in the Kingdom of Halla is hungry: the peasants, soldiers, prison guards, messengers, even the camels. In one scene, the King’s minister bites off a chicken leg and a prison guard stares at the chicken leg. The minister asks, “Why are you so greedy, man?” In another scene, a messenger says, “I have not eaten for days, Sir.” Every actor has hollow cheeks, is skinny and skeletal with a bent body. In contrast to this, Goopy and Bagha (played by Tapen Chatterjee and Rabi Ghosh), because of the boon from the bhooter raja (King of Ghosts), eat beautiful, rich, and celebratory dishes on silver plates. Eventually to stop the war between the Kingdoms of Shundi and Halla, Goopy and Bagha give the King of Halla a pot full of rosogollas, and while the King eats, they travel to Shundi. The war does not take place because the kings of Shundi and Halla, who are brothers, are reunited. Goopy and Bagha are married to the daughters of the two kings. The soldiers meanwhile get earthen pots of rosogollas and raj bhog from the sky. Thus, for me – a rain of rosogollas stopped a war!

But the hungry faces continue to appear in Ray’s films. In the Apu trilogy (1955, 1956, 1959), Apu and Durga’s mother, Sarbajaya, is constantly worried about food and feeding. The old aunt, Indir Thakrun, is desperately hungry. In Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955), misti signposts a lack, it is something that young hungry villagers desire and cannot have. Misti foregrounds the protagonists as pitiable bodies. In Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1958), the camera focuses on the face of Paresh Chandra Dutt (played by Tulsi Chakrabarti) in the cocktail-party scene. His desire to eat merrily and drink a cocktail after seeing his reflection on a glass reminds the viewer of the magic of the stone and that the cocktail belongs to the world of wealth and stealth. In films as various as Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984), Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), Devi (The Goddess, 1960), Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958), Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players, 1977), and Mahanagar (The Big City), Ray returns us to thresholds of Indian post-colonial modernity, the newly emerging middle-class ethos, and the traumatic moments of cultural conflicts, but never to happy satiated faces after eating. Even in the now iconic scenes of picnic and getting inebriated in Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969), there is no eating. Sandwiches are side-lined to play the memory-game. Every viewer can now remember the implicit sexuality in the memory-game with the names of Rabindranath Tagore, Karl Marx, Cleopatra, Atulya Ghosh, Helen of Troy, Shakespeare, and Mao Tse Tung, but not the sandwiches! For a filmmaker like Ray who worked on every shot for hours, this kind of absence of detailing of the most natural act of eating, cooking, and feeding seems deliberate. Perhaps his cinematic oeuvre, as critics constantly remind, is about evolving cinema as an emergent critical idiom for postcolonial Bengal and by extension of India and therefore, happy faces chewing food is incongruous to a space struggling with hunger, poverty, and material and psychical displacements. For me, however, Goopy and Bagha’s words “mundu gele khabo ta ki, mundu chara bachbo na ki” (What will we eat if our heads are cut off, will we be alive if our heads are cut off?) and their beautiful silver plates of food continue to remain an emblem of the realist aesthetics of Ray’s cinematic enterprise.

Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen depicts food as tangible real objects, food that is to be eaten, chewed on, tasted, and digested. Here food is produced by clapping of hands. It is borne out of a boon earned through singing and playing the dhol. And the men who sing and play the dhol are simple and innocent, earlier banished from their own villages called Amloki and Hortuki (names of fruits/herbs in Bengali). They had found friendship and bhooter raja while wandering the forest. Goopy and Bagha’s song-dance sequence after realising that they can eat as much as they want to, now with the boon from bhooter raja, ends with Goopy remembering his past hunger: “Na kheley nai kono sukh” (There’s no pleasure without eating). Now food is no problem: they just need to clap their hands and “korma, kalia, pulao” will appear magically. (Actors Tapen Chatterjee and Rabi Ghosh would later recall how difficult it was to eat this rich food, which would arrive in the morning but would go cold by the time the scene was shot). The scene ends with the duo deciding to go to Shundi to take part in the music contest. As a parting shot, Bagha tells a dog to eat the leftovers, and quips to Goopy: “Kukure khay bhooter khabar” (A dog eats the food of ghosts). Later, in a scene when Goopy is worried, Bagha says, “Tumi koro giye chinta. Pet bhore khabo, pran bhore ghurbo” (You go and worry. I will eat to my fill and travel to my heart’s content). There is pleasure in eating maacher muro (fish-head) and raj bhog. Eating is nourishment and marks abundance. The act of eating takes Goopy and Bagha away from being poor and hungry, away from living between pity and necessity, into a realm of abundance, love, and sympathy. The culinary delights embody a range of human sentiments here: from strange to cruel, familiar to idyllic, comfort to fear and anxiety. Everyone, except for Goopy and Bagha, are in need of food and in the throes of war. The act of eating and relishing food can only be arrived at through innocence. And eating alone provides pleasure and can thwart the war.

This shifts the aura of the film: challenges its temporal uniqueness, reinvents its historical relevance, transports its contexts, and converts the metaphorical into that which is physical and tangible. In Aguntuk (The Stranger, 1992), when Anila Bose (played by Mamta Shankar) serves her visiting unknown relative (played by Utpal Dutta) bhaat, dal, maach, palong shaager ghonto, mangsho for lunch, the camera focuses on aahar ere eto bahaar (elaborate eating rituals) of a Bengali. Saag then dal followed by mangsho – the Bengali bhadralok follows specific rituals and arrangement of the plate. In this film, every discussion of food (from snake meat, beef, human flesh to tribal practices) has a representative and a performative function. Moments of eating are revelatory – Manomohan Mitra, Anila’s mama (uncle), explains his wanderlust and how the knowledge of a NASA scientist is no different from a tribesman making a hut to shelter his family from the natural elements. Goynar bori (sun-dried dumplings made with soaked moth beans; famous for its intricate ornamental designs, almost an edible piece of jewellery) is brought in to remind the viewer of an essential bangaliana – one with bhromoner nesha (desire to travel the world) and is sorbobhuk (one who eats everything). Food is not an object that provides pleasure as in Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen but works as a visual symbol to reveal larger life truths. The images of mouths and bodies, of eaters and the eaten, are used to produce a story about the consolidation of racist ideologies in the intimate workings of the bhadralok Bengali middle-class. Eating becomes a locus of displacements. An example of this is again the lunch-scene: the viewer’s gaze is quickly moved away from goynar bori to the painting of a bison that mama encountered in his college-magazine; how this painting in the cave of South America convinces mama that he is unfit for the profession of a painter but needs to travel and know the world. And through his stories of wanderlust emerge the fissures and openings in the new post-colonial modern Bengali bhadralok whose political fictions are often messy and only semi-digested.

In Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen eating food is not a setting, a background. In Shakha Proshakha (Branches of a Tree, 1990), the family eating mangshobhaat together in the dining table is a long 13-minute scene. This lunch is, however, only an occasion, a setting to discuss jockey, horse-races, betting, and the veiled dishonesty of a Bengali middle-class bhadralok. In the long lunch-sequence the camera focuses on the fingers of the brothers (played by Haradhan Banerjee, Dipankar Dey, and Ranjit Mullick) eating their food. There is a deliberate delay: the men pick up but do not swallow the food; the fingers graze on the plates. The slowness embodies the resentment, lack of understanding and love, rebellion, and disagreement among the brothers. It is a moment of hesitant vulnerability, of aggression. Their moral corruption has invaded their plates. There is no joy, no slurping sounds and vitality that one sees in the eating of Goopy and Bagha. The latter caress the rice; mix rice with mangsho on their plates with utmost attention. There is sensuousness in their fingers, fingers that lick every grain of rice and hold rosogolla as a piece of beauty. They eat until their plates are empty, and viewers as me, can simply shut her eyes and enter this bucolic world of mangsho and misti. Theirs is a moving picture with the sounds and smells of my own kitchen. Fittingly then, in Shakha Proshakha, the mad second son, Prosanto Majumdar (played by Soumita Chatterjee), disrupts the lunch by banging loudly on the dining table; morality needs loud thumping. Morality is yet to find the force of words like in Aguntuk. The madman’s protestations make the viewer see lunch as a space wherein we eat to cultivate ourselves as political subjects by fusing the social with the biological, by imaginatively shaping the matter we experience as body and self. The slow eating-movements, the hiccups, the restraint in joyous display of appreciation reveal the morally corrupt ways of the bourgeois, urban subject position of the protagonists.

The narrative of Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen also has characters consistently negotiating questions of identity, madness, power, control, and resistance through food. But here eating is not a background to teach or embody meanings outside the eating subject, beyond the epidermal limits of their skins. It is true that the differing imperatives of hunger, necessity, pleasure, nostalgia, and protest determine the various meanings of food, and this happens here too. However, in reckoning with each of these interrogatives, by turning them into interrogatives, we begin to get at the materialist conditions that determine how, and why, to borrow from Judith Butler, the matter of food comes to ‘matter’. When Halla’s Prime Minister asks the spy: “So what did you see there?”, and the spy says, “Khete phashal aache, gaache phool aache, phol ache, paakhi ache, deshe shanti ache” (The fields are heavy with crop, the trees laden with flowers and fruits, there are birds and there is peace); when the hungry soldiers and peasants see pots of rosogollas fall from the sky and hear the song “O re Halla rajar sena, / tora juddho korey korbi ki ta bol” (O Halla King’s soldiers, / what will you get by warring) – it is food in its banal and quotidian form that appears to the viewers. Food that I eat when I am hungry; food that I need to eat to be able to sleep at night. If Michel Foucault knew Bangla, he might have characterised my response as ‘heterotopia’ – a journey from my provincial town to the imagined space of Shundi and Halla. Not ‘utopia’ for these are neither ideal nor real spaces; but does the unreality of it take anything away from my salivating tongue? Do I not pray every night for the same boon as Goopy and Bagha for my new-born sleeping beside me? May there be no worries about food and clothes – “Aamader jeno khawa porar kono bhabna na thakey.”

Insofar as cinematic adaptation can be seen as a new technology for reproducing literature, Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen does so by extending the food descriptions of the original text. Ray’s adaptation of his grandfather Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury’s story attains critical relevance because it successfully denaturalizes the authority of the original by making spectacular display of grand food. While most filmmakers deliberately devised ways to obscure eating or did not bother to show food at all, Ray here shows us the meals, the magic, myth, and tedium of eating, and a part of the film’s success hinges on its ability to make the viewer eye these scenes exactly as the prison guard greedily eyes the chicken leg.

For Bengalis, Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen inaugurated a new semantics of relishing food itself. There are cafes in Kolkata such as ‘Coffee O Kobita’ (Shyambazar), ‘7 Days Cafe’ (Salt Lake), ‘Abar Baithak’ (Jodhpur Park), and a restaurant in Barrackpore called ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ that promise to immerse the connoisseur in Ray’s cinematic universe while dining. ‘Aaheli’, a popular Bengali fine-dining restaurant in Kolkata, hosted a food fest called Boronia Manuser Sarania Khabar in 2017, where Ray’s favourite foods from Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen were offered as a thali. The menu was curated by his son and daughter-in-law, Sandip and Lolita Ray. My favourite though are the walls of a restaurant in Alakananda DDA market of South Delhi called ‘City of Joy’. Here I have savoured koraishuti kochuri, bhetki paturi, cholar dal, postor bora, fish fry, and mutton biryani while staring at the black and white photos of Satyajit Ray, Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen, and Santosh Datta. The scenes from Pather Panchali, Saptapadi, Sonar Kella adorn the walls. This along with the photos of Howrah Bridge, double-decker buses, and trams, Hooghly river front surround the dining area. Suddenly from the world of anthologies and monographs, Ray seems to have entered my world of cooking, eating, and feeding. As I write this sentence, I cannot stop my giggle – I am somehow connected to Ray! Perhaps the designers who embroider Ray’s works on blouses giggle too while stitching and drawing. Tonight, I shall dream about sareer r paar, rosogolla, and Ray.

Aratrika Das
rejoices in her mundane existence of cooking fish, sleeping, teaching, dancing, reading, and cleaning. And often tries to think of new ways of reading and writing with her undergraduate students of Ramjas college, University of Delhi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Your essay so beautifully relishes and cherishes the reality of food being a natural reservoir for our overall well being and conflate it masterfully with Ray dada’s immortal classics. It should be a must read for all food, literary and Ray enthusiasts. A brilliant amalgamation of smells, flavours and flavourful words come from you.

    Thank you for that.

    May 7, 2021
    • Also how wonderfully you write about the social dynamics behind the act of eating as it totally hits home for us as readers.

      May 7, 2021

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