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How to mock a dictator: 'Hirak Rajar Deshe'

Made just after the Emergency, 'Hirak Rajar Deshe' remains Satyajit Ray's most political film, taking on authoritarianism and Indira Gandhi

A still from 'Hirak Rajar Deshe'
A still from 'Hirak Rajar Deshe'

One fellow didn’t rhyme.

As a child, once you notice characters in a film speaking in rhyme — not only singing, but actually speaking in rhyme — you’re hooked. It is addictive to spot characters completing each other’s verses, and when I first watched Satyajit Ray’s 1980 film Hirak Rajar Deshe, I was besotted by this sing-song Bangla breeziness. I remember co-opting one particular exchange, where a king asks the film’s heroes “Shonge jaabe ke?” (“Who will accompany you?”) to which Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne reply “Ér shonge aami, aamar shonge é!” (I’ll accompany this one, and this one’ll accompany me!”). Ideal to use on parents wondering about chaos you and your cousin will cause.

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Standing out in this wondrous adventure — the English title, The Kingdom Of Diamonds, is pure Tintin — one man didn’t rhyme. The schoolteacher, Udayan, taught the children how to think for themselves instead of falling for beguilingly worded propaganda. Hirak Rajar Deshe may have dressed like a whimsical children’s film, but made immediately after The Emergency of the late 1970s, it was a scathing indictment of Indira Gandhi, and of authoritarian rule itself. To me, it remains Ray’s most directly political film, and, following his birth centenary this Sunday, I was compelled to watch it again. (The film is streaming on the Hoichoi app, alongside a selection of the director’s classics.)

In the 1969 fantasy Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, one of India’s most original films, Ray conjured up two musician heroes and a world of ghosts. The king of the ghosts granted Goopy the singer and Bagha the drummer three boons: enchanted shoes which allow them to travel anywhere by clapping their hands together, the ability to make food and clothes appear at will, and, most strikingly, the ability to hold an audience spellbound. Whenever Goopy and Bagha perform, those around them are frozen in place.

The sequel begins with bored heroes. They married princesses at the end of the first film, and now have a princeling each, but little to actually do. Longing for adventure, they decide to step out. These travels take them to Hirak, a land known for its diamonds, featuring a king obsessed with his own glory. He consults — and overrules — the royal astrologer on the right time to unveil a giant statue of himself, and believes education is a threat. “Joto beshi podhe, toto beshi jaane, toto kom maane,” he growls, meaning the more the people study, the more they know, the less they obey.

Therefore we see the burning of books, the closing of schools, and the royal scientist devising a magaj dholai (brain washing) machine to make the population parrot the king’s propaganda. More than forty years later, the satire remains depressingly relevant. For instance, the king, preparing for royal guests, orders all signs of poverty to be removed from the path leading to the palace. The parallels are inescapable.

Goopy and Bagha — names borrowed by Salman Rushdie for talkative, rhyming fishes in his own allegory Haroun And The Sea Of Stories, a children’s story about censorship — are played wonderfully by Tapen Chatterjee and the marvellous Robi Ghosh. Hirak, the hairy king drunk on his own hubris, is played by Utpal Dutt, legend of stage and screen and one of Bengal’s leftmost intellectuals. Santosh Dutta, who played both a good king and an evil king in the first film, here plays the good king again as well as the loony scientist.

I had once asked the late Soumitra Chatterjee, who played the film’s true hero, the dynamic schoolteacher — the man who refused to rhyme — about the perils of making such a nakedly political allegory right after the Emergency. “No one would have dared to touch that film because it was made by Satyajit Ray,” the actor said. Calling Hirak Rajar Deshe “one of the strongest political statements you can find in film,” Chatterjee said “you need a kind of conviction to make a film like that.”

The conviction is relentless. The diamond kingdom has brainwashed subjects, yet guards stand everywhere, because the king doesn’t trust the myth he propagates. In a tense late-night scene, everyone falls asleep — Goopy, Bagha, the scientist meant to be looking out for them — except the paranoid, insecure tyrant. When Goopy and Bagha tell the teacher they’re good at stopping wars, he tells them this battle is necessary.

Goopy and Bagha, who turn listeners into helpless statues, may be said to be as guilty of mind control, but they only use their powers for good. When they offer the schoolteacher food, he first asks which side they are on. Later, when they ask if the scientist is on the king’s side, the defiant scientist roars: he is alone, he is unique. Science doesn’t take sides.

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Ray’s music and lyrics are superb, and the political finger-pointing more relevant than ever. I do, however, wish the director had a budget to play with. Hirak Rajar Deshe would have massively benefited from scale. It feels like a clever theatre production with a few visual flourishes — eye-and-mouth motifs cover the palace, as does a checkerboard pattern — but this really deserved a giant canvas.

The reckoning is emphatic. The tyrant, frozen in song, is forced to stand and listen while Goopy sings out a litany of his misdeeds. In the stunning Nohi Jantra, he confronts and shames the fascist for his cruelty. The final punishment is even more poetic: the King, thrown into his magaj dholai machine, gladly tugs on the ropes himself, alongside schoolchildren and impoverished labourers, to bring down his own idol.

It is a sensational, and enduring, moment of hope.

One highlight is a tiger. Entering the royal safe, Goopy and Bagha find a great beast guarding the diamonds, and desperately break into song. The majestic animal even appears to enjoy Goopy’s panicked, hilarious performance. It is said that, on set, the sedated tiger was imposing and hard to control, and the actors and crew were nervous as they worked around the animal. Tyrants are one thing. It isn’t easy to subdue a Bengal tiger — or tigress.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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