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Use of Magic and Supernaturalism in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Hirak Rajar Deshe

May 6, 2020 | By

Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne and Hirak Rajar Deshe are the two films that Satyajit Ray made based on the characters Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne. In both the films, Ray uses the tropes of magic and supernaturalism as primary instruments of narrative progress to portray the contest between good and evil. In this article, Susmita Paul focuses on three combined aspects evident in these two films to assess Ray’s use of magic and supernaturalism in delineating the conflict between good and evil.

Poster of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne   

Poster of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy Bagha) (1969) [henceforth Goopy Bagha] and Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds) (1989) [henceforth Diamonds] are the two films that Satyajit Ray made based on the characters Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne. He took inspiration from his grandfather, Upendrakishore Raychowdhury’s tale Goopy Gyne o Bagha Byne (Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne) and his father, Sukumar Ray’s “word play and juggling of ideas.” (Robinson 183) Upendrakishore infused in such tales for children a simple and colloquial language. He incorporated local myths that ghosts have magical properties, tales of village fools and change of their fortune, and, folklores that the good always wins over the evil. In its cinematic interpretations, Ray masterfully introduces many layers of complex narratives while still keeping the simple and colloquial language, the humour and the folk tropes of the original text. In the adventures of his cinematic duo Goopy and Bagha, Ray imbibes several undercurrents of complex thoughts involving power imbalances between the oppressor and the oppressed, the role and position of science in society and the plight of soldiers in war amongst others.

Poster of Hirak Rajar Deshe

Poster of Hirak Rajar Deshe

Ray uses the tropes of magic and supernaturalism as primary instruments of narrative progress in Goopy Bagha and Diamonds. Magic and supernaturalism have no morality independently. It is the agency of the agents using them that can be termed as good or evil. While the Western concept of ‘black’ and ‘white’ magic gives agency to magic itself (“Magic: Supernatural Phenomenon”), I suggest that Ray instead uses the possible Proto-Indo European root meaning of the word magic, “magh-”, i.e., “to be able, to have power” in these films (“Magic”). Hence, the magical powers endowed or forced upon become expressions of power relations, the discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article.

To profess magic and supernaturalism as the same is an error of judgement. The concept of the supernatural as something beyond ‘nature’ originates from Latin roots (“Supernatural”). The supernatural necessarily implies a presence of an other-worldly being with powers beyond comprehension in the natural world. In contrast, magic is a democratic function. It can be available to anyone and can be mastered freely.

The character of the Scientist and his Jontor-Montor Ghor (the Mumbo-Jumbo Room) in Diamonds however problematises the stark distinction between supernatural and magic. The Scientist produces things (a fragrant bunch of paper flowers, a telescope and the brain-wash machine) whose functioning is beyond the comprehension of the people of the kingdom of Hirak. This puts forth the question, does science inhabit the realm of magic or the supernatural? Discussing this issue is again beyond the capacity of this article.

In this article, I focus on three combined aspects evident in the films to assess Ray’s use of magic and supernaturalism in delineating the conflict between good and evil. Firstly, I briefly study the idea of class stratification as depicted in the Dance of the Ghosts and in the society in the kingdom of Diamonds and introduce the concept of knowledge as having magical potency. Secondly, I explore the characters of the King of Ghosts and Borfi in Goopy Bagha and the Scientist in Diamonds. I also examine the potency of their magic and supernaturalism. Thirdly, I analyse how music can be magical, with or without supernatural intervention.

The Dance of the Ghosts and the Stratification of Society in the Kingdom of Diamonds

Expelled by their respective kings, Goopy and Bagha (in Goopy Bagha) find themselves in a cane forest with the imminent danger of the presence of a tiger in the same forest. As they break into a cacophonous song and dance celebrating the tiger walking away, the cane forest transforms into pitch darkness. Ghosts appear dancing to Goopy-Bagha’s tune. The King of Ghosts emerges in glistening black and gestures to the apparitions as they break into a dance.

Dance of the Ghosts in Goopy Bagha

This six and a half-minute sequence compresses Ray’s “knowledge of the history of Bengal and of south Indian percussion-playing, as well as a fine appreciation of human and camera movement” (Robinson 187). Ray significantly chose to depict a four stratum ghost dance, four being the number of basic castes predominant in India. These were the kings/warriors, the sahibs (a remembrance of India’s colonial history cannot be denied), the fat ghosts (religious leaders and lawyers) and the common people.

The choice of musical instrument aligns with the hierarchy of the castes. The kings and warriors had the mridangam, a classical South-Indian instrument. The ghattom accompanied the sahib ghosts simulating the uptight nature of bureaucracy with a “sort of stiff clatter” sound (Robinson 187). The mursring, a comical folk-instrument, was used for the fat ghosts. Finally, the commoner ghosts were accompanied by the ganjira, a drum similar to that played by Bagha.

The fine strain of criticism in the depiction of four clans of dancing ghosts progresses in Diamonds. The King, his ministers, the Raj Jyotishi or the Court Astrologer, and, the common people mirror the four levels of society in the Kingdom of Diamonds. The King has his regalia while the ministers are his law-yielding arms. The Court Astrologer retains the comic tone of the fat ghosts as he plays along with the King’s wishes. He however manages to predict that the enemy of the kingdom will be brought down to his knees. The King reads this as the imminent captivity of the dissenting village teacher, Udayan Pandit. It is only ironic that at the end of the film, the kingship and the king’s statue will collapse leading to the promise of a democracy.

Ray digs deeper into the different groups in the category of the common people and creates three distinct divisions: the farmer, the labourer (in the form of the miner) and the educated and compassionate teacher. In his village school, Udayan is shown telling the children tales of Hitopodesh. Hitopodesh loosely translated as “Beneficial Advice” is a Sanskrit text which is said to have its roots in Sanskrit treatises called Panchtantra. Hitopodesh consists of fables incorporating worldly wisdom, advice on political affairs and maxims (Haskar ix). By imparting this knowledge, Udayan Pandit empowers the young minds. These young boys become his voice of dissension in his absence from the village: a young boy breaks the nose of the Ozymandias like statue of the King in the midst of its unveiling. Another young boy topples the headgear of a minister walking by, while another boy, playing a drum, covers for him.

Through the playful actions of the boys, Ray subtly shows that they have probably developed a sense of what is good and what is evil. In the dark of the night, Udayan Pandit plans a public gathering on the fields over which towers the King’s statue. He informs one of his students so that he can gather his friends. These boys will eventually be held captive by the King’s soldiers. The fact that they answered their teacher’s call implies formation of agency. They make a conscious choice. At this point learning and knowledge become the magic potions that the common people advocate for their own empowerment.

hirak rajar deshe Udayan Pandit

Udayan Pandit and his students running freely in the end sequence of Diamonds

The King of Ghosts, Borfi and the Scientist

Ray consciously chooses to step outside the tradition of depictions of ghosts in Bengali literature and folklore. He effected change in the way ghosts are described. The ghosts in the dance of the ghosts and the King of Ghosts have neither ear like elephants nor teeth like long radishes. Instead, Ray imbues character into these ethereal beings.

A gleeful King of Ghosts sits cross-legged in front of a twinkling star. Depicted in shiny pitch black with strategic glows of white circles, with a cracked musical voice, the King of Ghosts appears as a far cry from being menacing. He speaks in endearing terms to Goopy Bagha. He bestows them with three boons, more than what they have asked for. The three boons given by the King of Ghosts are of instant food and clothing that can be attained by clapping each other’s hands with a wish; instant travel with magical slippers and a clap; and, the magical power to produce music that transfixes the hearer.

Ray's sketch of Borfi from his draft

Ray’s sketch of Borfi from his draft

The King of the Ghosts is also a monarch with a benevolent attitude. He has supernatural powers that he can endow upon mortal beings. The longevity of his boons is unequivocally accepted in Goopy Bagha and Diamonds. Without them, there would be no adventure of Goopy and Bagha, let alone defeating evil intentions of oppressors. Supernatural powers and magic appear in two more contexts in the films- in the forms of Borfi (ironically translates as Diamond), the magician who provides aid to the conniving Minister of Halla; and, of the Scientist whom the King in the Kingdom of Diamonds mocks as “Gobeshok Gobochondro Gyanotirtho Gyanorotno Gyanambudhi Gyanochuramoni”(Ray, Hirak Rajar Deshe).

The powers and the potency of magical solutions to the oppressors’ problems created by both Borfi and the Scientist are, in the first instance, temporary. Borfi in Goopy Bagha aids the Minister of Halla in his evil intentions to control the King of Halla. He provides the Minister with magical potion which when administered to the innocent King of Halla, the twin brother of Shundi, finds effect temporarily. When the Minister requests help to energise the famished army, Borfi obliges by a swing of his magic stick. However, Borfi vanishes into thin air soon after, leaving the Minister to his own skills.

The Scientist in Diamonds creates a machine with a chamber (kokkho, meaning room) with a sinister monster-like set up from where the keyed in brainwashing words flow (jokkho, metaphorically refers to a supernatural entity who is believed to be benevolent and said to bestow fertility and wealth). The impact of this magaj-dholai or the brain-wash machine is proved to be temporary. The victims of this machine, Fazal Mian, the farmer and Balaram, the miner, are broken free from the enchantment by jubilant cries of “Dori dhore maaro Taan/ Raaja hobe khaan khaan” (roughly translated as ‘Pull the ropes and / the King will fall’) in the concluding scene.

Dori dhore maaro taan

Ray chooses to keep alive the probability that the magic created by Borfi and the Scientist will achieve posterity. The speech-inducing powder made by Borfi was aimed at the speech-impaired commoners of Shundi. It was supposed to be used by the cunning Minister of Halla to give voice to the grievances of the people so that he can suppress it. It is in the end used by Goopy and Bagha to bring speech back to the kingdom of Shundi. Similarly, the final use of the Scientist’s brain-wash machine in Diamonds is the brain-wash of the King and his ministers. The couplet used to impregnate them is the afore-mentioned one. The King and his ministers are shown running towards the King’s statue chanting this couplet. As they arrive, Goopy and Bagha provide them with the ropes to help pull the statue down.

The magic of music

Music is an integral part of Goopy Bagha and Diamonds. The magical potency of Goopy and Bagha’s music is endowed by the King of Ghosts. The King of Ghosts mentioned that their music will transfix the listener. Through out their adventures in these films, Goopy Bagha use situational songs to either mesmerise or to purposely transfix individuals (and animals, for instance, the camels in Goopy Bagha and the tiger in Diamonds). The King of Shundi offers them the position of court musicians primarily enchanted by their magical musical properties. By virtue of their magical music, Goopy Bagha make narrow escapes from the clutches of the conniving Minister of Halla and ultimately succeeds in halting his magically energised army to launch their attack against Shundi.

Their music is shown to have another impact that is not mentioned by the King of Ghosts. In Goopy Bagha, the King of Halla is transfixed by Goopy’s song in the middle of charging at a life-sized stuffed figure in the likeness of Shundi’s King. When he regains consciousness, he returns to his innocent self and refuses to be part of any violence. Ray makes the evil Minister acknowledge the power of Goopy and Bagha’s music to lessen the strength of the magical potion that arouses evil intentions in the King of Halla. This directs our attention to the possibilities of music, that are unknown. In Diamonds, as the folk singer Charandas sings “Mondo je she shinghasane chore” (literally translates as “The evil one sits on the throne”), the King is transfixed momentarily. Charandas is not blessed by any supernatural deity/entity. In spite of that, his music, by virtue of truth, has the power to transfix. At this juncture, music becomes magic, with or without the supernatural interventions.

Charandas’s song in Diamonds

Covering the realms of supernaturalism and magic, in Goopy Bagha and Diamonds Ray portrays the contest between good and evil. By positioning music and education in the possible realm of magic, he broadens the horizon of what can be magic. In the process, he empowers the agents dealing with magic. This empowerment implies a power of choice. And this choice is that of good over evil in these two Goopy Bagha films.

Works Cited

Haskar, A.N.D. (Translator) (2006). Introduction. Nārāyānā Hitopodésa. ix-xiv.
“Magic”. Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed 20.04.2020.
“Magic: Supernatural Phenomenon”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed 20.04.2020.
Ray, Satyajit. (1969). Dir. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.
Ray, Satyajit. (1989). Dir. Hirak Rajar Deshe.
Robinson, Andrew (2004). The Inner Eye.
“Supernatural”. Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed 20.04.2020.
“Supernaturalism”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed 20.04.2020.

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Susmita Paul is an emerging writer with only a couple of English poems recently published in Montauk after a long hiatus. Her sole Bengali poetry book was published by Kaurab in 2019. She is also a Zentangle inspired artist and also a mother to a curious five-year old. She lives in Graz, Austria with her son and her husband.
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