A close friend of Satyajit Ray, filmmaker, critic and historian, and co-founder of the Calcutta Film Society with Ray, Chidananda Dasgupta commented in 1957: 'I consider Satyajit Ray perfectly capable of producing a better fantasy than all other Indian directors put together. … I should not be surprised if he produces a first-class comedy one day.'
That it took Ray almost ten years to actively start work on Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, his most enduring work of fantasy, owes itself as much to Ray's preoccupation with other ideas as he scaled creative highs from the Apu Trilogy to Charulata as it does to the logistical and financial difficulties he encountered in putting the project together.
WHAT INSPIRED RAY TO MAKE A FILM FOR CHILDREN
Ray's interest in the genre was reactivated in 1961 with the approach of his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury's centenary in 1963. It was in 1961 that he also revived the Ray family's children's magazine Sandesh, founded by Upendrakishore who had written and illustrated the original story in 1915. Driving the thought of bringing Goopy Bagha to screen was young Sandip Ray, his son, who was of the opinion that his father made films only for adults and that the films were too sad.
By the time he had finished revising the original four-page story into a 120-minute screenplay, it had gone through quite a metamorphosis. One of the changes he wrought in the screenplay was that while in the original story, Bagha is the simpleton and Goopy the clever one, the roles are reversed in the film. The same goes for the kings of Halla and Shundi – in the original the former is the good king, the latter the one led astray by his evil minister.
WHEN RAJ KAPOOR ALMOST PRODUCED THE FILM
The relatively lukewarm box-office response to his previous outings Kapurush-o-Mahapurush, Nayak and Chiriyakhana, and a general downturn in the Bengali film industry at the time, led Ray's regular producer since Mahanagar (1963), R.D. Bansal, to back out, leaving Ray without funds for his project. This was compounded by Ray's unwillingness to compromise with his vision – there were demands from producers to foreground Goopy and Bagha's marriage to the daughters of the two kings, thus providing a romantic element which would facilitate obtaining money.
Ray also approached producers in Bombay to make the film in Hindi but that too fell through. One of the big names who came forward to produce the film was Raj Kapoor. He, however, had one condition: Prithviraj Kapoor would play Goopy while Shashi Kapoor would be Bagha. Needless to say, it was an offer Ray could not but refuse.
It was only around Christmas 1967 that Nepal and Asim Dutta came up with the funds for the film. However, the budget didn't allow for colour. Interestingly, the film's last sequence was shot in colour and it's thanks to Sandip Ray. 'That colour sequence was my idea! I kept thinking how wonderful it would be in colour. My rationale was, the princesses, who refused to look at the two friends, would definitely do so if they were in colour!'
THE STRUGGLE TO CAST THE FILM
The film's casting too went through a number of changes over the years. Rabi Ghosh, who had made a huge impact with Abhijan (1962), was Ray's automatic choice for Bagha. Arun Mukherjee, who acted in Ray's Kanchenjunga (1962), was initially selected to play Goopy. As the film got delayed, Ray approached Kishore Kumar to play Goopy – he was also to sing Goopy's songs. But 'date' hassles came in the way of the singer taking on the project. (Goopy's songs were eventually rendered by Anup Ghoshal – heralding a new singing sensation in Bengal.) One Jibanlal Bandyopadhyay was next roped in for the role. Eventually, it fell upon Tapen Chatterjee, an employee in the advertising division of the Indian Express, to enact Goopy. Chhabi Biswas was Ray's original choice for the double role of the kings of Halla and Shundi, while Tulsi Chakravarty was to play the evil Halla minister. But with the demise of both actors, these roles were enacted by Santosh Dutta and Jahar Ray respectively.
THE CULTURAL IMPACT OF GOOPY AND BAGHA
The film has gone on to become a cultural marker beyond borders. In his collection of essays, Imaginary Homeland (1991), Salman Rushdie acknowledged Ray's influence. In his novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Haroun encounters two Plentimaw fish, so named because they talk in rhyme, during his journey to the Land of Chup. The names of the fish: Goopy and Bagha.
Nearer home, there's the Ranbir Kapoor starrer Jagga Jasoos, in which Jagga has cakes dropping from the skies to end a war, mirroring Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, in which the two friends sing till rajbhogs and rosogollas start falling from the heavens, leading the famished soldiers to abandon the war. Jagga also travels to the fictional town of Shundi in search of his adoptive father.
A SLOW START AT THE BOX OFFICE AND RAY'S DEFENCE
The initial response at the box office wasn't encouraging and critics carped about Ray selling out to the box office. As Ray recalled in an essay in Deep Focus: Reflections on Cinema, 'One, allegedly discerning, critic remarked apropos of my previous film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, that it gave a clear indication of the director's striving to pander to the box office. And this about a film that broke completely fresh ground, was based on a comparatively unknown story by an author who was certainly not Sarat Chandra Chatterjee in popularity, used no stars, cast a completely unknown artiste and another comparatively unknown in two leading roles, used songs entirely legitimately perhaps for the first time, inserted a near-abstract dance, seven minutes long to the music of abstract and unfamiliar south Indian percussion and, finally, provided no romance, no sentimentality and only two females who appear for barely five minutes in the very last scene of the film. How discerning can you get?'
But with word of mouth praise, the film started to pick up, eventually going on to become Ray's biggest box-office success. One unexpected fallout of the film's success was the effect it had on the sales of the rajbhog. Soon after the film's release, sweet shops all over Calcutta prominently showcased this king of sweets, which had prevented a war, priced at a princely Re 1.
Ray himself was quite pleased with the way the film had shaped up, and its success went a long way in rejuvenating both him and the Bangla film industry. In a letter to Marie Seton, Ray wrote, in December 1968, 'I am very happy with the film, though I can see that many of the concepts in the second half may be too unconventional for the mass audience. But the last twenty minutes have a gaiety and simplicity that should satisfy everybody.' Then in January 1970, in a postscript to another letter, he said: 'Did I tell you that Goopy has got an all-time record for long run (8 ½ months) before it was taken off at the end of December?'