03rd Aug2017

‘The Music Room (Jalsaghar)’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Chhabi Biswas, Gangapada Bose, Kali Sarkar, Padma Devi | Written and Directed by Satyajit Ray


After the commercial failure of the second part of his Apu Trilogy, Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray opted for more commercially viable material for his next project. He turned to writer Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay, and a short story about a landlord clinging to his last motes of power as his empire crumbles around him. The result was 1958’s Jalsaghar, released internationally as The Music Room.

The landlord (or zamindar) in question is Lord Roy, played by Chhabi Biswas with a gravitas that matches his contemporary, Laurence Olivier. The film opens halfway through the narrative, with Roy as a bent old man, and the last of his servants, Ananta (Kali Sarkar), still at his side. We jump back four years to show what brought Roy to near-ruin, before the second half of the movie shows us how he will move forward from his personal tragedy.

Pride of Roy’s mansion is his music room: a large decadent hall, where many an entertainment over the years has built his reputation and garnered social respect. Now the room is in disrepair. Yet, as the coffers run ever drier, it’s still the one place where Roy can feel proud, especially as a younger businessman, Ganguly (Gangapada Bose), has moved in next door and he is building wealth – not to mentioned a music room – of his own.

Fitting firmly into the Gatsby/Kane tradition of men of means losing their soul to hubris, The Music Room feels like the last act of There Will Be Blood stretched to 90 minutes. And it’s just as good as that sounds. It’s remarkably brave to make Roy inherently unlikeable from the very beginning. He’s a drunk and a bully, more interested in the prestige of his dynasty – encapsulated by the music room and its portraits of his forefathers – than he is in the welfare of his family or the subjects on his land.

Ray fills the frame with significance from the very first shot: a chandelier, beautiful yet fragile, swinging perilously in a great dark space. As Roy’s power wanes, the cyclone floods move in, his influence literally diminishing; and as he sits alone in the dark – proclaiming, “I will never go downstairs again” – Ray casts a watery light on the wall, as if his protagonist is submerged by grief. There are moments of visual humour, too: late on, as Roy hatches the crazy plan to splurge the remainder of his money on one last musical performance, there are actual bats in his belfry.

Ray’s use of Indian music is extraordinary, specifically in the ambiguity of its delivery. Mirroring Roy’s mental state, it is often unclear whether the music we hear is in the next room, or emanating from Ganguli’s residence next door, or possibly drawn from Roy’s memory and not there at all. For the final recital there is no such doubt, however. A ten-minute performance of mesmerising intensity, it feels almost like a vindication for Roy; a last hurrah for an old-timer not ready to be upstaged by an upstart.

Ray is a technical master, so special mention should go to the complexity of his camerwork, which is perfectly complemented by Dulal Dutta’s editing. At one point, we get the full gamut: a long take of the music room which sees the camera tilt, pan, and then track one way and the other, while overlaid on the soundtrack are the melded memories of musical presentations. It’s as if we’re looking through Roy’s eyes, but we’re not seeing the ghosts he sees.

With its beautiful craftsmanship, complex script and melancholy mood, The Music Room is a film for film lovers. Always refusing to make crass judgements about its subject, it’s an intelligent and moving character study which manages to marry thematic depth and a brisk running time. It’s an ideal introduction to India’s most celebrated filmmaker.

Ample extras include interviews from 2011 with Ray biographer Andrew Robinson, and filmmaker Mira Nair; from 1981, a roundtable discussion between Ray, author Michael Climent, filmmaker Claude Sautet and presenter Dominique Reznikoff; and a full, 130-minute documentary by Shyam Benegal, from 1984.

The Music Room (Jalsaghar) is out on Blu-ray on 7th August from Criterion.


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