Language: Hindi

Cast: Manish Bhawan, Rajeev Raj, Shailendra Pande

Director: Shilpa Ranade

Shilpa Ranade’s Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya begins with an inter title that the makers must have slipped in at the last minute. ‘Goopi and Bagha salutes the Indian army,’ it reads, alongside an image of the duo, lanky and exaggerated by the blessing of animation.

For those who have seen Satyajit Ray’s Goopi Gyn Bagha Byn (1969), or have read the original story by his grandfather Upendrakishore Raychowdhury, which came out in 1915, Goopi and Bagha are such familiar and yet distant figures, pure and idealistic (not to mention so much fun), that it’s a bit unsettling to readjust them to this new reality. Two wandering musicians who spread the gospel of peace through songs, and put stop to a war between two kingdoms. Raychowdhury’s text is an allegory for ages, but I doubt if Goopi and Bagha would’ve been more relevant than in a week when border tensions between India and Pakistan are at peak, and a possibility of a war breaking out is real. At one point in the film, the King of Shundi, considers the costs of war; they have only 27 soldiers and a few horses left, and large scale consumption of laddoos have rendered the elephants unfit for war. Besides, it’s his brother, the King of Hundi, that he has to fight. ‘Can this war not be averted?,’ he says. Rarely does fantasy, playing at a cinema near you, juxtapose so seamlessly with the Breaking News of the day.

Weirder still is the fact that Ranade’s film, produced by the Children’s Film Society, India, was completed in 2013. It played at the Toronto International Film Festival, MAMI, the International Children’s Film Festival in India, but didn’t get a theatrical release. What are the odds it’d have come out this week?

But even without the unexpected urgency of its message, the film is a treat.

It goes like this: Goopi (Rajeev Raj) is a simpleton who has a great desire to sing but lacks the musical talent. Sick of his harsh, atonal singing the villagers complain to the king who banishes him to the forest. Goopi enters the forest at night, scared of ghosts, where he bumps into Bagha (Maneesh Bhawan), a percussionist, who happens to have suffered the same fate as him. They break into an impromptu jam, and their jugalbandi, although still out of tune, sounds better than the solos. It pleases the ghosts, particularly the Ghost King (Shailendra Pande), who offers them three boons.

Goopi-Bagha play it smart: they should have the tastiest food, from shahi korma to daal pakwan, delivered faster than Swiggy; each get a pair of chappals that’ll take them anywhere in the world; and most importantly, they become really good musicians. Food, travel, art. What a life. 

Normally a film with a completion-to-release gap as long as six years looks dated. Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya is so richly imagined, so unique in its visual style, that it still looks unlike anything we have seen before.

In a whimsical little departure from the original (the screenplay is by Soumitra Ranade), the director adds a fourth boon – which Goopi and Bagha save for the last. The instantly iconic Ghost King sequence from Ray’s film (conceived under budget constraints and filmed in black and white) was a psychedelic dance of patterns and lights. Ranade’s Ghost King, that looks like a gorgeous cross over between the Chhau Mask and Andhra’s leather puppetry traditions, is a worthy successor.

Normally a film with a completion-to-release gap as long as six years looks dated. Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya is so richly imagined, so unique in its visual style, that it still looks unlike anything we have seen before.

Ranade was the illustrator of Gulzar’s Hindi translation of Raychowdhury’s story, and shares the same title. Also an animator and filmmaker, she has spoken in interviews that in order to create the world of the film, she borrowed from “everything around her, from carpets, to bedsheets, to furniture”. Tactile and often two-dimensional, the film’s aesthetic (the animation is by Aashish Mall and Mayank Patel of Paperboat Animation Studios) feels decidedly Indian. But it’s hard to point out a certain kind of style or influence. One moment I found myself thinking about the pale gloom of Tim Burton animations, or the twisted city that sits on a mound in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and at the very next moment of Sukumar Ray. King of Shundi is dressed up in something that resembles peacock’s feather.

The characters of the film – thin hands, long faces, big heads – speak in rhymes and wordplays. The evil scientist who casts a spell on the King of Hundi talks in reverse. When the King of Amloki gives orders to banish Goopi, he orders, ‘Send him off on the back of the third and sixth note of the sargam.’ That’s ‘ga’ ‘dha’, a donkey.

The songs – by the group 3 Brothers & a Violin – are faithful to the spirit of the compositions from Ray’s film, and their rare combination of comedy and Indian classical music recalls Padosan. There are songs of subversion, such as “Tark Kar Vitark Kar”, a call to ‘drop the sword, pick the pen, hammer and sickle’. But the one that stings the most, and stops the war, “Ghee Mein Ho Paancho Ungliya” (the film’s version of Ray’s ‘O re Halla Rajar Sena’), is all about laddoos.

Watch the trailer:

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