Grade: AMusic Room , The (1958)

Director: Satyajit Ray

Stars: Chhabi Biswas, Gangapada Basu

Release Company: Sony Pictures Classics

MPAA Rating: NR

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Satyajit Ray: The Music Room


Mother Teresa of Calcutta Prays During a Religious Service
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Like a lotus flower, Satyajit Ray's Jalsagbar (The Music Room) gently reveals its enigmatic central character--feudal landlord Huzar Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), the last of his aristocratic line in British India. The opening prologue ranks among the most evocative in film history. A medium close-up shows the middle-aged landlord inertly sitting atop a terrace roof—alone, depressed, lifeless--he gazes disinterestedly across the barren landscape. A servant silently enters with a hookah pipe, and Biswambhar asks, “What month is this?”

Immediately we are drawn into the world of this deeply flawed character. Just what has happened to this unfortunate man to bring him to such a state? Why does he refuse to leave his deteriorating and empty mansion? Soon we discover that one passion still stirs the protagonist—music. His servant informs that his neighbor Mahim Ganguli (Gangapada Basu) is hosting a sacred thread ceremony for his coming-of-age son. That sparks a rare pleasant memory, and filmmaker Ray provides an extended flashback into the aristocrat's life to trace his decline.

There were happier times when Biswambhar often rode his beautiful white stallion Toofan and played classical Indian music while his devoted young son Khoka (Pinaki Sengupta) accompanied him in song late into the evening. Although Biswambhar's income is declining, that doesn't stop him from hosting elaborate musical concerts in his prized music room. He just orders his servant to sell family jewels and heirlooms to pay for the musicians and refreshments; impressing his guests far outweighs practical concerns. Naturally, Biswambhar's wife Mahamaya (Padmadevi) becomes distressed at his irresponsible behavior and fears that their son will follow in his footsteps.

Similar to The Chess Players, Ray contrasts the old colonial lifestyle with more modern Indian life, but does so much more subtly here through the landlord and Ganguli. Biswambhar's aristocratic heritage is established through establishing shots of an ornate chandelier, the expansive mansion, and the extravagant music room with towering columns, fine Oriental carpeting, large mirror, and life-sized portraits of family ancestors. Early on, Ganguli offers to rent a parcel of Biswambhar's land but is treated with utter contempt (because Ganguli's father was a money lender).

Needing the rent money, Biswambhar accepts the offer but continues to belittle the merchant. He will continually refuse to visit Ganguli at his residence despite numerous invitations, but is well aware of Ganguli's rising fortunes while his own decline. Yet Biswambhar continues to pride himself on his superior social and musical sophistication and pointedly displays that prominently during each of the three primary musical sequences.

These musical numbers highlight the film. While they provide the most comfortable atmosphere for Biswambhar, poor Ganguli is shown as blatantly awkward and ill-mannered. In the initial concert, Ganguli shows far more appreciation for drink than for the music--he is clearly bored. During the final and most elaborate concert, which is inspired by Biswambhar's determination to compete with his despised neighbor, the servant sprinkles perfumed water on the guests, humorously doing so with great contempt at the hapless merchant.

As in his other best work (The Apu Trilogy), Ray includes symbolism without overdoing it. To prepare for coming tragedy, the second musical concert is a visual tour de force, as a thunderstorm interrupts the meditative music and a cricket drowning in a wine glass proves to be a bad omen. The final concert features a large spider crawling on the leg of an ancestral portrait, and the aging aristocrat becomes distraught afterwards when discovering that the chandelier candles are rapidly waxing away into darkness.

Surrounded with modern cinema fare that lazily relies on borrowed plots and formulaic visual effects, it's a welcome treat to re-discover a film that deals profoundly with character like The Music Room. Just as Ozu is considered the “most Japanese” of filmmakers, Ray is by far the “most Indian” of filmmakers. Both treat the audience with respect and welcome them into their inner circle--and this is another relaxing film that allows us to kick off our shoes and enjoy at home.

This will soon join the ranks of a handful of other Satyajit Ray works to be preserved in a DVD format; it's layered enough to warrant multiple viewings. The fact that it is the first of Ray's works to receive the Criterion Collection treatment (with best possible video transfer and a plethora of supplemental features) is a true reason to celebrate!


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