Voicing the Voiceless: A Political Reading of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne
Shah Al Mamun Sarkar & Dr Nirban Manna, IIT (ISM), Dhanbad
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a famous children’s’ narrative written by Upendrakishore Roychoudhury, was adapted by Satyajit Ray in 1969 for his screenplay with the same name. The narrative is set in rural Bengal during the colonial era and revolves around the lives of the two male protagonists Goopy and Bagha. Goopy is a young villager with an unimpressive voice, but with great ambitions to become an accomplished singer. The superior heads of the village encourage him to sing, and even called him ‘Gyne’ (the singer), although ironically, they treat him as a clown for their amusement. Subsequently, the villagers are unable to tolerate his singing and so decide to banish him. After being driven out from his native village, Goopy ends up in a forest where he meets Bagha, a drummer with a similar fate. At night, the King of Ghosts, extremely pleased with their song, grants them three boons - limitless food, boundless travel, and musical talent. Then Goopy and Bagha travel to the kingdom of Sundi for a music competition where the king of Sundi is pleased by their musical talent and appoints Goopy and Bagha as court musicians. And now they have their own voices. Later on they also get married with the daughters of the King. The concerns in this paper are to highlight how these characters like Goopy and Bagha become voiceless during colonial era, and how the powerful people treat them as the subalterns. We also highlight how people treat the same voiceless people differently when they get voice after the blessing of the Ghost King. The paper seeks to unveil several political symbols which fits to the colonial and post-colonial vocabulary.
Keywords: Subalterns, Knowledge, Power, Colonial Discourse, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne
Satyajit Ray, son of the great Bengali poet Sukumar Ray, was born in Calcutta (present day Kolkata) in the year 1921. He went on to become one of the greatest filmmakers having almost forty films, musicals, documentaries, and numerous books and articles to his credit. Although, critics have often accused Ray for not sticking to any particular political ideology and jumping from one theme to another, Ray has responded to it in the year 1975 by saying:
Critics have often accused me of a grasshopperish tendency to jump from one theme to another, from one genre to another...rather than pursue one dominant subject in an easily recognizable style that would help them to pigeonhole me, affix me with a label. (Films with) a whodunit, a children’s fantasy, a tale of adventure, problems of contemporary urban youth, the famine of 43, all made over a ten year stretch, it is inevitable that a feeling of restlessness, perhaps even of indecision will emerge from this jumble. All I can say in self-defence, if one is needed, is that this diversity faithfully reflects my own personality. (Dilip Basu, n.p.)
On the whole, Ray cannot be associated with any particular political ideology. Instead, he is often called a Nehruvian who had a strong faith in modernism. As a filmmaker, his technique was mostly realistic presentation of the course of events.
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is originally written in 1915 by Upendrakishore Roychoudhury, grandfather of Satyajit Ray, which appeared in Sandesh- a Bengali magazine meant for children which was initiated by the writer himself. Satyajit Ray read the story for the first time when he was about eight; he enjoyed a lot of it but that time he did not think about filming it. On the revival of Sandesh in 1961, Satyajit Ray reread the story and contemplated filming it. In the year 1968, the film was released under the same title. However, the film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is essentially a film for the children, which has aspects of fantasy in it that presents the social scenario in a metaphorical way. Also, it contains a message related to empowerment of the subalterns who are capable of changing the social scenario once they realise their own power.
The objective of this paper is to critically examine the philosophy and ideals presented through the film and also the social criticism that works as an understatement in the humorous scenes. Unlike other films by Satyajit Ray, this film hasn’t been much dealt with in the academic scenario. However, its significance cannot be ignored because this film is a part of children’s literature and such art forms play a greater role in any cultural setting as whatever a child learns has an effect in building up his/her personality. The impact of their learning gets reflected as they grow up to become a part of the nation building process.
The narrative is set in rural Bengal during the colonial era and revolves around the lives of the two male protagonists Goopy and Bagha. Goopy is a young villager with an unimpressive voice, but with great ambitions to become an accomplished singer. The superior heads of the village encourage him to sing, and they even called him ‘Gyne’ (the singer), although ironically, they treat him to be a clown for their amusement. Subsequently, the villagers are unable to tolerate his singing and so decide to banish him. After being driven out from his native village, Goopy ends up in a forest where he meets Bagha, a drummer with a similar fate. At night, the King of Ghosts, extremely pleased with their song, grants them three boons - limitless food, boundless travel, and musical talent. Then Goopy and Bagha travel to the kingdom of Sundi for a music competition where the king of Sundi is pleased by their musical talent and appoints Goopy and Bagha as court musicians. And now they have their own voices. Later on they also get married with the daughters of the King as well.
The story narrated so far reveals how, after a certain self-realisation, two subaltern characters – Goopy and Bagha achieve success in life. They become rulers from being the ruled ones and also become instrumental in bringing change to the life of other subalterns. From the beginning, the character Goopy displays certain amount of confidence which isn’t prevalent among other subalterns like his father or the farmer he talks to in the beginning of the film. While conversing with the farmer to whom he proudly displays his ‘tanpura’ (a musical instrument), Goopy proclaims that he is maestro who unlike others won’t remain downtrodden for lifetime.
Tumi chasa, ami ustad khasa
[You are a rustic, I am a maestro]
(Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, 2:42min)
When he felt inspired to sing before the king, his own father interrupted by scolding him and asking him to limit himself within the grocery shop. According to Foucault, human beings are determined by the condition of their existence and therefore it is impossible to free themselves from the predetermined order or code. This logic can be applied to the farmer and also Goopy’s father who are more aware of the reality around them. However, Goopy, considerably unaware of the real world, goes ahead and sings for the king. Humiliated and cast out, he moves ahead in the forest, but his determination remains unbroken.
Choli choli choli choli
Pather j nai sesh
Goopy ache besh
[How far Goopy has to go and where, knows not,
But he doesn’t care, he is absolutely fine]
(Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, 14:02min)
In a forest, Goopy meets Bagha the drummer and become a dynamic duo. In the night in the forest they witness the dancing of the ghosts who were divided into classes as well. None of the ghosts did anything beyond their conventional norms. One might interpret it as Goopy and Bagha’s realisation of their self as an outcaste. They never obeyed the norms and pursued dreams greater than what was expected from them. However, the ‘king of ghost’ emerged at the end and offered them three boons. Those were of food and clothing, ability to perform and entertain and be able to go anywhere they feel like. For any subaltern of the time, the basic need remains food, clothing and shelter. However, in case of Goopy and Bagha, they demand only food and clothing and leave out shelter. Instead, they demand the ability to travel different places and gain knowledge by experience. Once again, they reveal their superiority over other subalterns by desiring something essentially aristocratic in nature.
One may also interpret the emergence of the ‘king of ghost’ as a development of their own consciousness. Having already realised their ‘outcasted reality’, the net endeavour was to improve their own personality by working upon what can be their strength- the ability to perform and entertain and visit different places to gain knowledge and experience. Their new ability to sing can also be interpreted as their ability to voice their desires. In one of the songs- ‘Maharaja!’, the protagonists interpret their singing ability to be a special kind of language that can be communicated to anyone. Towards the end of the film, they use their songs to raise the consciousness of the subalterns of ‘Halla’, who later revolt against their own king and decline from the war. Thus, as Spivak analyses Foucault in her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ says: “the oppressed, if given the chance, and on the way to solidarity through alliance politics can speak and know their condition” (Spivak 25).
However, in most of the cases the margins fail to realise their potential because their subaltern status is established over them in an epistemic manner and they tend to regard the oppressors as their superior with whom they cannot revolt. This happened in case of Goopy’s father and the farmer shown in the beginning. This factor also had an effect over the people of Halla who failed to realise their potential to revolt against their own king. They represented the ‘illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of urban subproletariat’ (Spivak 25).
Another aspect of the film that needs analysis is the presentation of the bourgeoisie. In the words of Fanon, ‘the national bourgeoisie of underdeveloped countries is not engaged in production, nor in invention, nor building, nor labor; it is completely canalized into activities of the intermediary type’ (Fanon 2). In this film, two types of bourgeoisie have been presented at different levels. One is the old Babumoshais (respectful Babus) at Goopy’s village who inspires him to sing for the king while their underlying plan was to humiliate him. Another is the minister of Halla who in the absence of an able ruler was engaging most of the powers at the cost of exploiting the subalterns. Both of these agents were working at the level of the intermediary. The ‘babumoshais’ wanted to create a fear-psyche among the subalterns by having Goopy humiliated. This might not give them direct power, but the fear-psyche created in others will surely mark them as superior who were capable of ruining others life. In a similar way, the minister of Halla, by exploiting others and inflicting wars will certainly become an influential personality though they will never become king. This way of exploitation is often taken up by the middle class bourgeoisie of any underdeveloped country in order to get access to indirect power.
According to many critics, Satyajit Ray has been called a Nehruvian with modernist and progressive attitude towards life. Some of his films like Devi (The Goddess, 1960), Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), Ghare Baire (The Home and The World, 1984) reflect his positivist attitude towards western liberal education and progressive thought. In Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, he presented a magician (ironical version of a scientist) who became a power symbol throughout the narrative structure. One may study the magician as a subaltern on account of his voicelessness. However, his education has helped him to harness power and improve his condition as to become the source of power for the ruling class. Here, though Ray throws emphasis on the significance of western scientific education, one might also find him to be slightly critical of the Eurocentricism associated with such western mode of study. The magician, after having gained power, supports the villainous people instead of improving the subalterns. It has been discussed earlier that Ray didn’t follow any particular ideology in an absolute manner. But his adherence to the western liberal education was not devoid of any criticism.
A Marxist analysis of the film will lead one to study it in context of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. Both Goopy and Bagha belonged to the proletariat group from where they rose to power by revolting against the oppressor. Towards the end, a utopian society emerges in both Sundi and Halla as they themselves become the king. However, Hegel brought in the concept of dialectics according to which the synthesis after sometimes becomes a new thesis that will once again arise contradictions and conflict and thus the process will continue. Similarly, for Goopy and Bagha, the adventures didn’t end with them becoming the king. It rather leads to the creation of a series whereby they continue their struggle and become instrumental in changing the lives of other people in trouble.
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