Time Out, Satyajit Ray

The new 12th edition of the Time Out Film Guide has recently been published, and for my money it’s by far the best collection of capsule reviews in book form that’s widely available. Utilizing an extensive group of UK writers and covering a spectrum of films that far surpasses the Leonard Maltin or Martin/Porter guides–with more provocative writing–it’s a wonderful quick reference when browsing your cable schedule or local video store.

The latest edition has been especially spiffed up, with color page inserts and alphabetical markers. It also has an admirable DVD buyer’s guide organized by country, which suggests significant DVDs from all regions and even provides an informative plug for the multi-region DVD player industry.

This is International Week here at Caltech, and organizers have been showing a variety of noteworthy films, including Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Clouds of May (more on this later), and Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1968), otherwise known as The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha.

Ray’s film is a true anomaly: unavailable on video in this country, it was by far his most financially successful film, and one of his least typical. Although Indian cinema is known for its Bollywood musicals based in Bombay and filmed in the Hindi language, Ray’s cinema was rooted in Calcutta and the more realist-inclined Bengali cinema. (Sometimes termed Tollywood, and not to be confused with Kollywood.)

Ray’s oeuvre in the ’50s and ’60s was internationally famed for its intimate dramas and aesthetic sensitivity, but Ray’s multi-talented approach to the arts included a love of music and graphic design. Adapting a story written by his grandfather, Ray fashioned Goopy and Bagha as his first musical comedy, an epic tale of two rural musicians and their whimsical misadventures with the King of the Ghosts, magic spells, and two kingdoms waging war. Goopy and Bagha have been compared to Tom Sawyer and Huckelberry Finn, but the silly nature of the film, its random creativity, and the relatively dim-witted exploits of the two heroes also makes it a kind of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (though Ray’s writing is far less scatological).

Although Ray, who composed the film’s music, conceived the film as an epic tale children could enjoy, a formal experimentation is on full display, notably in a sequence when Goopy and Bagha meet the spirit world deep within the woods. Ray uses negative processing and various shadow puppets superimposed over shots of the forest, and the sequence is not only an engaging musical number, but a visually inventive one as well.

Goopy and Bagha played for a record fifty-one straight weeks and in Ray’s later writing, he seemed bewildered at the experience of hearing the songs he wrote being sung by virtually every child in town. For me, it was especially rewarding to see the film with a largely Indian audience, who immersed themselves in the film despite its poor video dub and laughed the whole way through. It’s a playful, joyous picture, and one that deserves greater exposure.

Speaking of which, Goopy and Bagha is one of thirteen Ray films that has been restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the initiative of the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Collection at the University of California, Santa Cruz. They’re currently working on Three Daughters (1961) and Kanchenjunga (1962). All of Ray’s films have been in danger of being lost (and some original negatives have been), so their work is of the highest importance. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle offers a good overview of RayFASC’s laudable efforts.

All this just in time for the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, which began last night.