Update - here's the full column:
I'm watching Satyajit Ray's fantasy-adventure classic Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, about two simpletons - the singer Goopy and the drummer Bagha - who use their music and their generally upbeat outlook towards life to help save the land of Shundi from an attack by a rival kingdom. I've seen the film twice before, and each time the subtitling has been inadequate (to say the least). Besides, on the first occasion years ago, I wasn't familiar with the original story written by Ray's grandfather Upendrakishore, and so I had to draw my own conclusions about some of the plot details.
Thus, when Goopy and Bagha used a boon given to them by the king of ghosts and accidentally reached a land called Jhundi, I figured this couldn't be a real place in Bengal because the landscape was snowy. A while later, the subtitles vanished altogether for a 10-minute stretch, leaving me clueless about what the Raja of Shundi was saying to our two heroes. Since I had guessed by this point that Shundi too was an imaginary land, I briefly wondered if the Raja was speaking an invented language that the viewer wasn't supposed to understand. (Not a very improbable idea given the Ray family's flair for fantasy, including the nonsense verse composed by his father Sukumar.)
On the DVD I have now, there is an attempt of sorts to capture the rhythmic playfulness of the film's dialogue and songs. For instance, in a scene where Goopy sings a song to thwart (and "freeze") the cunning minister of Halla, the subtitle for the opening lines read:
"Oh Mr Minister with Plots so Sinister...But even the most imaginative subtitles can't replace the experience of understanding the words as they are spoken, and therein hangs a tale of disconnect. I love Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, but I'm aware that it can never be part of my childhood mythology in the way that Hindi movies were - or the scone-and-macaroon-filled world of Enid Blyton for that matter.
Don't you try concealing
Your crafty double-dealing!"
The first time I saw Ray's film, the language was a barrier. Take the enchanting scene where the king of ghosts, speaking in a singsong voice, offers Goopy and Bagha three boons. The impact of the scene - the sense of mystery and wonder it creates - hinges on the cadences of the ghost's speech as well as Ray's use of a syncopated electronic tune; it requires an immediate link between the viewer and the characters. And so, there's a big difference between the experience of the Bong viewer - who understands the words and their inflections directly - and the experience of the gatecrasher whose eyes must flit back and forth, from the subtitles (which in any case are often so poor that a second layer of conscious interpretation is required) to the expression on the ghost's face (it's delightful how he looks wide-eyedly from Goopy to Bagha and back again as he speaks, as if they, not him, are the oddities).
Similarly, when Goopy and Bagha sing about the various types of ghosts they saw in the forest ("Tall ghosts, squat ghosts! / Fat ghosts, lean ghosts! / Ripe ghosts, mean ghosts!"), it wasn't much fun having to read the rapid-fire flow of English words at the bottom of the screen instead of simply enjoying the song and dance, and the expressions on their faces. (Watching the scene on DVD now, with the subtitles turned off, is much more satisfying.)
As a result, my perspective on this film is necessarily different from that of the Bengali viewer who grew up with it (and perhaps with the original story as well). The reference points and associations are different too. Watching Ray's occasional use of wipes to separate one scene from the next, I wonder if he was influenced by Kurosawa's use of this technique in films like The Hidden Fortress and The Seven Samurai. The repeated call for an executioner to "chop off their heads" is reminiscent of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. When the king of Halla breaks into song in the presence of a group of distinguished ambassadors who are visiting his court, I think of Groucho Marx's loony "Just wait till I get through with it" act in Duck Soup. (This isn't a stretch: Ray once wrote that if he had to take a single film with him to a desert island, he would choose a Marx Brothers film without a moment's hesitation.)
But it would be a mistake to suggest that the Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne experience can be spoiled by not knowing the language - it contains so many fine examples of pure visual storytelling. Watching it now, I marvel at how playful and experimental Ray was here (possibly one reason why this film and his other movies for children are neglected by Western critics: their existence is inconvenient for those who pigeonhole him as a director rooted in realism). He very effectively uses tracking shots and close-ups (as in the gloating faces of the village elders who get Goopy into trouble early in the story). There are freeze frames, there is even a series of jump cuts (when Goopy claps his hands while singing "Maharaja Tomare Selaam" for the king of Shundi), and many striking compositions that create a sense of unease: a scarecrow in the foreground as Goopy makes his way across a field; a shot of water dripping onto a drum followed by a slow pan to Bagha sleeping nearby. Best of all is the film's most famous sequence: the inventive and multidimensional ghost dance, which is a superb example of an aspect of Ray's creativity that many people are still sadly unfamiliar with.
The dance begins with four groups of ghosts (representing different classes of society - noblemen, soldiers and so on) posturing grandly, but it ends in all-round massacre, with everyone dead, and this foreshadows a key theme of the film. I doubt that anyone watching Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne even at the level of "mere entertainment" can fail to be moved by its understated yet clear-sighted pacifism, which finds its final expression in the uplifting climactic scene where hungry soldiers lay down their weapons and make a beeline for the pots of sweets that Goopy and Bagha have conjured for them. Ray doesn't underline the anti-war theme, but it's there for anyone to see.
Warmth and empathy are qualities found in all of Ray's movies, but this genre allows him to display them in their rawest, least guarded form: where else could you have that lovely visual of Goopy and Bagha performing for the Shundi Raja (played by the wonderful character actor Santosh Dutta, whose smiling presence is one of the most reassuring things about any movie I've seen him in), all three men so caught up in the moment that they beam unselfconsciously at each other, with the Raja swaying and clapping his hands like a little child in tune to the song? Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is about many things - it's about the strange and complex interactions between kings and commoners, about underdogs who triumph in the end, and about the value of good companionship (Goopy and Bagha must stay together if they want to continue availing of the ghost's boons). But most of all it's about two little heroes who want nothing much more than to "please people with our music" - though it doesn't hurt that in the best fairy-tale style they also end up winning the hands of beautiful princesses along the way! It's one of the most timeless films I've seen.