|For a filmmaker who has professed on numerous occasions that music was his first love, it is not surprising that director Satyajit Ray chose music as the binding theme of his third film, The Music Room (Jalsaghar). Ray, who started in advertising before moving into filmmaking, had already made a name for himself with his first two films, the independently produced Pather Panchali (1955) and its sequel Aparajito (1956), both of which were highly acclaimed, nuanced portraits of rural village life that won awards at international film festivals and helped redefine Indian cinema for the rest of the world as something other than brash, colorful song-and-dance kitsch. However, Aparajito was a box-office failure in Ray’s native country, and in searching for a topic that might hold more commercial appeal, he was drawn to Tarashankar Banerjee’s much beloved 1937 short story “The Music Room,” which told of a declining raja in the early 20th century whose love of music was his downfall.|
Ray and Banerjee had much in common: Both were artists who hailed from the West Bengal region of India, and both had focused their work primarily on village life. In describing Banerjee’s literary style in The Handbook of Twentieth Century Literatures in India, Sudipto Chatterjee and Hasan Ferdous could very well have been writing about Ray when they wrote that Banerjee’s novels and short stories “are marked with a remarkable clarity of expression, a keen sense of drama, and a heartfelt sympathy for rural folk.” Thus, even though the centrality of the aristocracy in The Music Room was a departure for both artists, they each brought to the story their characteristically humane and empathetic voice, essentially turning what could have been a simple condemnation of myopic aristocracy into a complex, moving portrait of human failure. Ray had already established himself as a unique Indian filmmaker whose quiet, understated dramas ran contrary to Bollywood’s typical melodrama and exaggeration, and with The Music Room he further defined his artistry by reimagining the traditional Indian musical. Rather than having unmotivated song-and-dance numbers suddenly explode out of and temporarily halt the narrative, he employed musical performance as an integral part of the story, which allowed him to showcase great classical talent (including Wahid Khan and Begum Akhtar) without breaking or otherwise compromising the narrative flow. Indian audiences and critics at the time didn’t quite make sense of it, but hindsight shows it to be a brilliant means of modifying the expected.
To understand The Music Room, which is set primarily in the 1920s, one must appreciate the historical and cultural crossroads of Indian culture in the early 20th century. At the time, India was still under British colonial rule and its social system was stratified according to a British-supported feudal class structure. At the top of this structure were zamindars, land-owning aristocrats who collected taxes for the British from the peasants who worked their land. The protagonist of The Music Room, Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), is a zamindar, albeit one whose power is beginning to erode with the depletion of his family fortunes, a situation that is literalized by the land outside of his columned palace being slowly washed away by the force of the Ganges.
Although Roy is a hereditary aristocrat whose privileged social position exists at the expense of the rest of the country, Ray views him as a kind of tragic fool, a man who is so in love with classical Indian music that he is largely blind to his own undoing, despite the constant foreshadowing of various tragedies to come (an insect drowning in his glass of wine, a spider scuttling across his portrait, the lights on his prized chandelier burning out). We are first introduced to Roy as a reclusive, lonely old man who is so lost in his own head that he has to ask a servant what month it is. The story then flashes back many years earlier when Roy lived in the palace with his wife (Padmadevi Devi) and adolescent son (Pinaki Sengupta), the latter of whom also shares his love of music. But, even at this time the writing is on the wall, as Roy must sell the family jewels in order to pay for his son’s lavish initiation ceremonies. He also begins what will turn out to be a losing competition with his new neighbor, a nouveau riche moneylender named Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Basu) who represents the new class of self-made businessmen who don’t need heredity to claim wealth and influence. Ganguly’s success is signified by his desire to host music recitals in his home, which had previously been Roy’s exclusive domain (this threatens Roy’s standing both economically and culturally, as he is no longer the area’s primary patron of the arts).
In adapting Banerjee’s well-known story, Ray made a few key changes that brought it more in line with his style of psychological drama, the most important being Roy’s decision to ask his wife and son to return early from a trip in order to attend a recital that he organized for no other reason than to trump a housewarming party Ganguly was planning. The superficial selfishness of this act turns out to have dire consequences, which lays a crucial layer of guilt over the story and heightens the tragic impact of Roy’s slow decline. He is a victim of his own indulgences, but also of a wider cultural shift that his ancestors never had to face. The rise of modernity frequently cuts through The Music Room, whether it be Roy being disturbed by the clanking sound of an “electrical machine” next door or the classic image of an elephant grazing in a field being obscured by the dust clouds kicked up by a rattling lorry. That these cultural motifs exist so comfortably within a film that is both a nuanced psychological portrait of an aristocrat in decline and a showcase for India’s best musical talent is testament to Satyajit Ray’s unique dexterity as a filmmaker.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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