Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Rating (out of five): * * **
Over the opening credits of Satyajit Ray’s 1958 The Music Room (Jalsaghar), a chandelier drifts out of the darkness, slowly swaying into view like some luminescent deep sea creature. This chandelier, one of several that hang in the titular room, will come to symbolize the flickering (pre-electric) light of a way of life that is quickly disappearing.
The Music Room is a fin de siècle story along the lines of The Leopard or The Magnificent Ambersons, detailing the last member of a feudal dynasty’s slide into obscurity. When we first see Lord Roy (Bengali matinee idol Chhabi Biswas), he is alone on the roof of his decaying palace, lost in thought. A sparse exchange with his servant (Kali Sarkar) reveals that Lord Roy has no idea what month or season it is.
His stupor is interrupted as he hears the strains of music coming from his neighbor’s house. The neighbor Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose) is a commoner who has made his fortune as a money lender and doesn’t hail from the same pedigree as Lord Roy. Hearing the music stirs Roy’s memory, catapulting him back a few years to the beginning of his decline.
Lord Roy’s family wealth has all but run out. His ancestral home is being slowly eroded by neglect (and the nearby Padma River). Nevertheless, it is vital to Roy to maintain the appearance of opulence, especially in the face of Gunguly’s encroachment on Roy’s territory. Roy hocks and mortgages the last of his valuables to throw lavish musical performances at his palace. It’s never quite clear to the viewer (or, most likely, Lord Roy himself) whether these concerts are arranged for the love of music or for the sake of keeping up with Gunguly’s own soirees.
Despite Lord Roy’s declaration that Gunguly is “a dwarf reaching for the moon,” Roy remains enslaved by the need to prove his superiority. Ultimately, this need to out-perform his neighbor (and to stay relevant in a changing world) comes at too great a personal and financial cost for Lord Roy. A tragedy destroys his ability to enjoy music altogether and we are back on the roof with a lost, hopeless Lord Roy. English, electricity, and automobile engines have encroached into Roy’s world and his response is to wither gracefully.
However, he is soon coaxed out of his isolation by (what else?) the need to once again trump Gunguly. This culminates in one of the most exciting, exotic musical set pieces I have ever seen.
The film is buoyed by a solid performance by Biswas, who’s in nearly every frame. Biswas walks the line between wistful and arrogant, perfectly portraying a man who’s resigned himself to obsolescence in the face of modernity. Ray’s especially fond of lingering on Lord Roy’s face; we see him think more than we hear him talk, whether he’s lost in the music or plotting another way to one-up his interloping neighbor. Bose is also perfectly cast as Lord Roy’s foil and perfectly balances a sort of oily sycophancy with an irreverent confidence.
Even though Ray is probably best known for his Apu Trilogy, it was an eight-month Parisian run of The Music Room in the early 1980s that sparked a Ray renaissance in the Western world. In 1992, the year Ray received a lifetime achievement Academy Award, extensive restoration of Ray’s films began. The Music Room represents the first fruits of this effort to preserve Ray’s work and bring it to larger audiences. The film has been resurrected from negatives damaged by heat and humidity, polishing Subrata Mitra’s black and white cinematography to its original stark beauty.
As usual, the Criterion Collection’s DVD comes generously supplemented, the highlight being a two hour documentary that delves deep into Ray’s life and work.
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