Did Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore foretell the ‘Present’ in their fiction?
By Gargi Vachaknavi
“War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.”
― George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four
Doublespeak in Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), was a way in which an oppressive regime brainwashed its common population. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), people were fed ‘soma’ and taught rhymes in praise of the intoxicant so that they would live in a state of morbid obedience. In both the books, rebellion or democratic principles were non-existent. The contexts in these novels were based on world orders around the two world wars and while much is being quoted from Hitler’s and Himmler’s regime to create parallels, the fact that we are witnessing the triumph of democracy gets lost in the goriness of the events.
‘Hum Dekhenge’ has been at the fringes of a controversy with a panel condemning the non-Hindu status of the poem. Faiz Ahmed Faiz had written this poem against the Zia regime in 1970s to inspire people to look forward to better days – a secular attempt to energise people weighed down by the burdens of tyranny. Intolerance for another world view seems to stare us in the face and generate endless violence and bloodshed. This situation brings to mind a story written by Satyajit Ray which won him national and international acclaim in 1980 — a dystopic story but with a positive end — a story that earned kudos as a film called Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the Land of the Diamond King). It is a sequel to the 1969 production of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — another one of Ray’s highly regarded and awarded masterpieces.
Hirak Rajar Deshe depicts a totalitarian regime by the Hirak Raja or the Diamond King who brainwashes people with the help of a machine called ‘jantarmantar’ and a weird scientist who feeds rhymes into it, rhymes like these, which could be perhaps seen as eternal because they seem to be playing out the current reality with all the attacks on universities and their inmates —
Lekha pora kore jei, onahare more shei
(Those who study, die of starvation)
Janaar kono shesh nai, janaar cheshta britha tai
(There’s no end to learning, so to try to learn is pointless)
What turned the tables on the totalitarian king is a visit from Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne from his earlier story. They help the village teacher, who does not speak in rhymes and has not been brainwashed, to overthrow the evil king. The king is brainwashed to become good and at the end of the movie, he pulls down his own statue along with the citizens of his land and the totalitarian rule ends — much like what Faiz says in his poem, “Aur raaj karegi Khalq-e-Khuda (Then the masses, people of God will rule)”. A revolution starts a new dawn.
What is interesting is that the duo, Goopy and Bagha, as shown in the earlier movie, go through different adventures where they help overthrow injustices and intolerances. They are part of a series — Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Hirok Rajar Deshe and Goopy Bagha Phire elo.
The evolution of Goopy and Bagha as characters goes back to more than a century, to 1915 and the Sandesh magazine founded and operated by the Ray family. Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, Satyajit Ray’s grandfather, had written and illustrated stories around these characters for children in the magazine. They evolved to full-fledged movies in the hands of his grandson.
Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne are depicted as uneducated country bumpkins with musical aspirations— thrown out of their village for their futile attempts to hone their wretched musical skills! When fate makes them meet in a forest outside their village, they indulge their passion for music which is not quite pleasing to men. Where men flee from their cacophony, ghosts get enchanted by their unmusical music prowess. They are granted three boons by the king of ghosts — bhooter raja — but the pre-conditions for the boons to work is that the duo need to be upright, honest and kind. Armed with these boons — magic shoes that can take them anywhere ( faster than our airplanes); an ability to mesmerise their audience with their music so that the listeners are unable to move while the duo perform and a capacity to clap and command whatever they want to eat or wear — the two friends set out on adventures that heal the wrongs in the world.
We may not have a magical touch in the real world, but what we do have is our convictions and our beliefs. When we see protestors going on a march, we know it is part of the democratic process which has been intrinsically sown into the folds of our society. But as many others and also Rabindranath Tagore showed in his, Raktokorobi or Red Oleanders, there are always tyrants who will express their difference of opinion with violence because they cannot understand logic or love. They try to rule by might. They behave like bullies. In Red Oleander, the king is a voice from behind a screen and he rules with an iron hand where all his subjects work hard to add to his wealth by toiling in his gold mines. Nandini, the heroine, has no magic, unlike Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne, but she has the power to love and rouse the subjects to an awareness of the injustice that they face. Through the play, Tagore showed how important a change in the mindset and perceptions are to move towards an ideal world.
And perhaps, it is a historical truth that mindset, perception and actions can lead to the creation of an ideal or a monster. In the recent best-selling historical narrative of Dara Shukoh, the Man who would be King, author Avik Chanda takes us on a detailed historical journey which shows the evolution of the tyrannical Aurangzeb — how the mindsets, perceptions and mistreatment by his father, Shah Jahan, and brother, Dara Shukoh, made him into what he was. Literature borrows from life, from history, weaves it with fantasy and imagination and creates a new telling. Where fact takes off and fiction takes over is a grey area. Fiction romanticises reality. And perhaps, it is because of this we turn to literature and poetry to inspire us to create a whole new world — a world dreamt of by Faiz in ‘Hum Dekhenge’, by Tagore in his poem, ‘Where the Mind is without Fear’.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Will we ever make it to this reality? That only time will tell.
Gargi Vachaknavi wafts on a sunbeam through various realms and questions the essence of all existence with a dollop of humour.
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