On the occasion of the 100th birth anniversary of Satyajit Ray It would only be fitting to reflect upon the heritage of the work of the master and how immensely relevant his work continues to be.
Like most of us, I too have been touched in transforming ways by many of his films. The one film that has always stayed with me though, has undoubtedly been Goopi Gayen Bagha Bayen. This masterpiece is deceptively simple but has stood the test of time, living on in the public imagination generation after generation, well after its making in 1969.
This quirky children’s film appealed to the young as well as the old; enrapturing all by way of its charming childlikeness. The story came from Ray’s roots, a brief piece written by his grandfather Upendra Kishore Raychowdhuri. The spare story had a truly robust skeleton, upon which over the years many layered their own interpretations fleshing it out and making it theirs.
My work as an image-maker fortuitously brought this classic to me to be illustrated in a book retelling by Gulzar. The prospect of being able to illustrate a work that had such stalwarts connected to it was thrilling as well as exceedingly daunting. I wondered what I could do that would add something of value to the colossal legacy of this timeless classic.
I revisited the film as well as the story; I was as mesmerized as when I had first encountered it as a young person. The story was deeply imprinted via the film, making it a layered memory. Along the way I also discovered that the story had been retold and reinterpreted and illustrated in many forms including books, plays, performances, puppet shows, animation, apart from the iconic film. I wasn’t surprised to see how it had been owned by so many; the warmth of the tale allowed for this and welcomed such elucidations.
While researching all that was connected to the story I found illustrated versions that were rooted in art traditions such as woodcuts and prints, these techniques are unusual in today’s times and not many illustrators of children’s material work with these painstaking forms. I also found marvelous images in the children’s magazine Sandesh, which was produced by Ray’s father Sukumar Ray. These fantastic and surreal images tapped into and reflected the vivid imaginings of the child without a vestige of talking down to their shining intelligence. I could see Ray’s own influences as well as his strongly etched footprints for others to follow.
Taking a cue from what I found I attempted to illustrate the book as a throwback to the times of the story, the children’s magazine and the film. I found myself completely immersed in drawing, the ten images I had been asked for turned into twenty and then thirty, of their own accord. The version I had, diverged and meandered in and out from the original taking on unique hues of its own, making it an ‘original’.
Being an animator primarily, my mind began conjuring up moving images of what I drew and it struck me then that this story was given so naturally to the animated form.
I then initiated the process of finding funds for such a project and thus began the journey of making the animated version Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya.
The story was retold in an adaptation that kept to the original structure, flavored and dressed up and twisted into a vision all his own.
The film is a musical with Goopi and Bagha imbued with voice and rhythm distinctively pan Indian, in the form of qawali, bharud, folk, film as also Hindustani classical music; the brilliant voices were also rooted in these varied traditions.
When I had to reimagine the characters and movement for the animated version I turned naturally to our puppetry traditions. These are robust storytelling traditions that have lived on over generations. I was fortunate to meet a master puppeteer in the Thogalu Gombayetta form of leather puppetry from Karnataka. His scintillating energy transferred to the puppets via the rods he used to wield them, while also singing and narrating stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. His mesmeric performance was supported by his family who sang and performed alongside in perfect synchronicity.
I went through the rigour of making a leather puppet to performing her for an audience as part of an ensemble, to get some sense of what the art of puppetry demands of you. My takeaway was to be able to find a rhythm for my animation
which would be specific to my sense of time and could tap into the ticking of my own body clock. I didn’t have to animate in ways that were prescribed by classical western animation. I had always worked towards finding a form that came from our own experiences, milieu and tradition, and I felt I had found this for the film via puppetry.
Animation is labour intensive and the turn around time always stretches on for years, this is exactly what happened and yet this was record time for a feature length film made entirely in India, all due to the unstinting and aligned efforts of a small but sparkling group of animators.
Since the moorings of the idea for the film came from the book illustrations the film naturally also took on the feel of a pop up, cut out book; all the characters were revised for the new life they were taking on and they transformed from those hanging on the surface of a page to a world through which they could run, jump, emote, sing and dance.
Every character was hand drawn in a small drawing book and the entire cast of 80 characters came from this tiny stream. Each little bit had to belong to a single family, synching stylistically and in essence to one seed.
The simple pen and ink drawings were then dressed up in lavish textures, sourced from everything that one could find; upholstery, lampshades, carpets, fabric, embroidery, antique botanical illustration… everything became a possible layer, making for a richly textured almost tactile look and feel. Every character and background are voluminously and intricately layered. Huge digital libraries were created for every bit and part of every character and animators had to pull these out to create the staccato puppet movement for the film.
The film right from the script to dialogue, characters, backgrounds, animation, storytelling has an extremely busy sensibility much like the chaos one is surrounded by in our everyday tumultuous lives. It is a culmination of collective energies of all the people associated with its making over the three years we spent with it.
Animation tends to live every effort that goes into its making; not even a moment is unaccounted for in its sum and the audience unfailingly feels this racing heartbeat. Goopi Gawiaya Bagha Bajiya has a collective pulse; it recalls the most beautiful story, the unforgettable characters, the classic film masterpiece, the many avatars in illustrated stories, school plays, performances and storytelling. Made as a loving tribute to the masters it hopes to be an instant in the forever journey of the original.
Shilpa Ranade is an animation filmmaker and Professor at IDC School Of Design, IIT Bombay, where she teaches Animation and image making. She has made several animation films that have been showcased at International film festivals and have won accolades and awards. She also illustrates books for children for some of the leading publishers in India.