Friday, August 17, 2012

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

The world may not need more people raving about how wonderful Satyajit Ray's films are—particularly educationally- and socially-privileged white people in the western hemisphere, whose opinions on the subject seem to cause particular consternation in some quarters—but this film made me smile from ear to ear and head to toe, so rave about it I must.

(If you haven't seen it, Dusted Off has a nice summary in her post here.)

With one caveat: there are no women who speak in this film. There are only two women of any stripe, and they appear in the last few minutes only to serve as wish-fulfillment (i.e. pretty, royal wives) for the two heroes. In the week since I saw this film, I have not been able to come to terms with this aspect of the script. Whatever justification is offered—namely that the original story (by Ray's grandfather) has no women in it—I am unsatisfied, although it has been very interesting thinking about what responsibilities one has to one's own time and/or culture when selecting a base story from another. There is no particular reason evident in the film itself why some of the characters couldn't be female, and I cannot accept the idea that "of course royal advisors and soldiers couldn't be female" in a film that has dancing ghosts, boons, and @(#*&^! magical shoes.

You can read more on this issue in the comments on Dusted Off's post on the film and even more in a mighty essay at the Journal of the Moving Image (Jadavpur University) called "Conditions of Visibility: People's Imagination and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne" by Professor Mihir Bhattacharya. There is a ton of interesting stuff in there, but this sentence is heavy with the feeling of fundamental truth: "This exaggerated depopulation...constitutes no mystery, for it is customary to hold that boys have more interesting lives, that the majority of the readers will be boys, and that boys constitue the more precious half of the child population."

I fancy myself at least moderately sensitive to gender issues, especially blatant ones like "Where—literally where—the frack are the women in this film?!?", but GGBB is so delightful that even I did not notice any of this until about three-fourths the way through the film when one of the heroes spots a princess far up on the balcony of a palace tower. That is how wonderful this movie is. It's so full of charm and interest and humor that you don't even notice your pet peeve howling at you through its entire run time.



Like most great children's films, it works on multiple levels simultaneously (or so I imagine, not having seen it until just last week) and has as much to offer adults as children: not only some commentary on being an imperfect human, but also basic cinematic assets like characterization, music, and visuals. This just may be one a film that falls into the elite category of "If you don't like this, there is something seriously wrong with you."

It is also, like many children's films, weird—and very effectively so, too. Most famously there is the ghost dance, which is eerie and a little unnerving and raises a ton of questions I had no idea what to do with, like why forest ghosts are dressed like Raj-era Weeble/Teletubby hybrids and what, precisely, about Goopy and Bagha's pathetic attempts at music enchanted the black-faced ghost king (who wears a prototype of the Yaarana light-up jacket)
so much that he gives them boons of food and clothing, teleporting (oh yes!), and enrapturing musical talent. I know very little about Ray and have seen only six of his films so can offer no intelligent guess as to what he's up to here, but somehow I can equally believe that it's all just for fun or that there is socio-historical commentary toothily lurking under the riveting dance, costumes, and special effects. At other times the creative decisions read much more strongly as simply deliberately playful, like the good king's whimsical tiger-faced scepter, a motif repeated in the evil king's stationery.
I mean, why not have a round scroll? Why not write in pictograms?
"In three days, bring five horses and meet me at the pyramid. We will cross swords in the mountains. At least one royal personnage will be very unhappy, for collapsed is the body that wears the crown and eats the donut."
A quick detour deeper into the visuals reveals that not only is the tiger motif repeated, the whole look of stencil-like animals and other patterns continues throughout the palaces.
Am I crazy or is this headboard based on rangoli? Isn't that the coolest thing you've ever seen?
I have so much respect for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and the people who made it. It is so thoughtful and warm and fun. Even the one thing I disliked about it made me ask questions and go off and do some research. The film bubbles over with beautiful or clever things to see and interesting things to think about. And I do mean bubbles: there's something very light and bouncing and shiny about GGBB, even when it is commenting on fundamental aspects of humanity like aggression (which you should overcome by raining bucketfuls of sweets on your enemies),
diving into more masala-y dramatic conventions* of twin brothers who almost go to war with one another, or designing the magician's costume out of a geometry classroom prop bin (which I mean as a compliment—all the costumes, which were designed by Ray, are really fantastic).
I love that it is mostly good to its protagonists once somebody understands and appreciates them and lets them make good on the talents they so desperately wish they had. It's so nice to be surrounded by kindness for a change. It's so nice to use fantasy and imagination to be better than we are in real life. 

Read more at SatyajitRay.org. Thank you, Samit, for encouraging me to watch this. You were so right.

* As I delve into Ray's films, I am struck by how filmi some of them are, at least in aspects of plot if not in the way things are depicted and told. I don't know why this has surprised me so much—probably simple ignorance about his work —but a result of this realization is that his films seem far more accessible and far less stodgy and/or numbingly depressing than I had ever thought they would. This, my friends, is why we must see movies for ourselves and not go by stereotypes. * sage nod *

13 comments:

memsaab said...

I haven't seen this one yet, I need to...but I love Ray's work. I don't find it in the least stodgy (and I'm a girl who finds Shyam Benegal stodgy sometimes) and it's always beautiful. I don't know about the lack of women in this women (maybe as an antidote see George Cukor's "The Women" which has nary a man in sight and is marvellous) but it's not a theme in Ray's work for sure...Charulata is one of my favorite movies :)

memsaab said...

(lack of women in this *one* sorry)

Beth said...

Oh Greta, I think you'll love this one. I haven't found any of Ray's films stodgy either - I think somehow in the world I grew up in he was sort of lumped in with "inaccessible foreign directors" who were raved about by snobby people. I'm loving learning to the better on my own. I watched the Apu Trilogy last week too and LOVED IT.

kaushik said...

Dear Beth,

I am your fan for many years and reading your blog with keen interest.

Very happy to know you loved "Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne".

Regarding "Bombayer Bombete" requesting a few minutes of your time to explain.

Satyajit Ray write detective fiction for teen age children. The main character was "Felu-da" and his watson was his nephew "Topse".

One of these stories he made into a movie "sonar Kella" (Golden Fortress) starring Soumitra Chatterjee (1974)

Years later Satyajit Ray's son Sandip Ray directs movies based on his father's 'felu-da' stories. Bombayer Bombete is one of them.

These movies are nowhere near the class of Satyajit Ray's Sonar Kella. Moreover, Soumitra Chatterjee set such a high bar with his performance that no one else has come near his performance.

The complete movie "sonar kella" is in youtube at link below. It is unfortunately without subtitles.

A young boy has visions of past life in a golden fortress in the desert with jewels, diamonds etc. His story is published in the papers. The boy is soon kidnapped. and Felu-da takes up the job to rescue the boy.

kaushik said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIdqTkUa5gE

Link of sonar kella.

Michael M said...

Beth if you haven't seen Sonar Kella w/ English subtitles,I can make that happen for you (loan), but not likely before September. Just let me know by e-mail. M

fathyry said...

I say thanks to that person who made this Wonderful Blog. www.lilipool.com

Aparna said...

So happy you liked it! I read the book when I was maybe 7-8 years old, and did not get to see the movie till it played on television some 3-4 years later and I was a little confused at some of the differences. When I see it again, I understand how Ray slipped in the messages to an otherwise innocent, happy story. The trick was to still make it enjoyable enough for kids so that they take the message easily without having it explained to them I guess. And the songs...I love the songs!
Maybe you can now move on to the next one in the series - Hirok Rajar Deshe?
The third one, unfortunately, had Sandip Ray directing it or completing the direction (got to check up my knowledge) and it was not so much fun, though again, it did have a message.
And I think, none of them have women. Strangely, that never bothered me, maybe because this is fantasy fiction realm.

Aparna said...

Btw, on your comment about finding Ray's work less stodgy, I remember a related comment by him at an interview. He was asked whether he is disturbed by the accusation of glorifying poverty - a common accusation hurled at 'Art' movie makers in India at that time. He sounded surprised and replied that most of his movies have not been about extremely poor people. In fact, some of his movies have been about rich people!

Anonymous said...

Pls also share ur views on hirak rajar deshe by ray

Beth said...

Aparna - I'd love to see the next one and in fact it was one of the first Bengali films recommended to me. Just a matter of getting my hands on it. I am NOT a fan of Sandip Ray, I must say, though that's based only on Bombayer Bombete, which I thought was terrible. Hmm.

I've only seen 10 of his films, but I don't that critique of Ray is particularly fair. What, did people want him to only show poor people as miserable, which is totally unfair and inaccurate and almost cruel? I like that his films show many different kinds of people (or so it seems to my perhaps too ignorant eyes).

Shrabonti said...

I've been a huge fan of not just Ray's films but his writing as well. I don't know if you're aware but he wrote more than a 100 short stories for a young-adult audience -- not including the Feluda stories -- and I've been reading them ever since I learnt to read Bengali when I was 10 or so. Yet the fact that they are strangely thin on female characters only struck me when I was in my 20s and I try not to let that interfere with my enjoyment of his writing.

Knowing his films, I don't think anyone could say Ray didn't understand women or could not portray them with conviction and empathy. But I somehow feel in his writing and his films for young people, he couldn't find a way to show women in non-sexual terms. I (vaguely) remember reading an interview in which he compared his Feluda stories to the Byomkesh Bakshi ones, which have a good dose of sexual politics and are firmly for an adult audience.

I carry the impression that he failed to introduce female characters in Feluda and other kids' stories/films because, essentially, he couldn't figure out a way to use them in a 'safe', non-sexual way. Is that a cop-out? Yes, a huge, huge one. I'd even say it's faintly sexist and a bit disturbing, especially coming from someone so wise and erudite. Does it make me like his work less? Not really.

Beth said...

Shrabonti - Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I have just seen Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath this week and was struck by the lack of women. I'm not even sure there's a woman who speaks (not sings) in the latter? I agree with you that Ray absolutely is able to portray women convincingly and to create complex, interesting, empathetic individual women...which makes their absence in other scenarios all the stranger. That interview you mention is really interesting. I'd like to know more about that. If he truly could not find a way to use women non-sexually, then that says something frustrating (and as you say, sexist and disturbing) about his concept of people as a whole (because someday, somehow, women will just be people too, you know?). Though it's always great to hear an honest answer out of someone. But that hardly even seems possible.

It may be that his children-oriented projects are just not what I'm going to like most and I'll stick mainly to his work for adults. :)