Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Based on a Story by: Tarashankar Banerjee
Starring: Chhabi Biswas, Gangapada Basu, Tulsi Lahiri, Kali Sarkar, Padma Devi
Running Time: 99 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Being a lover of classic and world cinema, and a blogger on the subjects, I try my best to watch a wide and varied selection of films, particularly those that are highly regarded. Somehow a large blindspot I’ve had for a long time though is Indian cinema, particularly the work of the highly esteemed director Satyajit Ray. Maybe it’s the shadow of Bollywood, whose stereotypically camp, pop-music filled style doesn’t appeal to me, that has kept me at a distance from Indian films, but I only watched my first Satyajit Ray film a few years ago. That was The Goddess (a.k.a. Devi), a film I thought was fantastic, so it prompted me to buy a couple of boxsets of Ray’s work, but as is too often the case (see my Cracking the Collection challenge), they have remained unopened. Thank God then for the Criterion Collection, who have released one of Ray’s most highly regarded films, The Music Room (a.k.a. Jalsaghar), on Blu-Ray and offered me a copy to review.
Based on a short story, The Music Room sees Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), a zamindar (landlord), try to uphold his proudly lavish habits in spite of his rapidly diminishing wealth. He’s obsessed with music, spending too much time teaching his son (Pinaki Sengupta) the beauty of it, rather than other studies, and putting on grand music recitals for the local dignitaries. To continue to host such decadent evenings of entertainment, Roy is forced to sell his wife’s (Padmadevi) jewels. He won’t stop though, particularly when he becomes jealous of the success of his neighbour, Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Basu), a self-made successful businessman who begins to put shows on at his own house. This one-upmanship is partly to blame for the tragic death of Roy’s wife and son part way through the film, forcing him to close up his music room and retreat into solitude and misery. Roy’s jealousy, or possibly admiration for Mahim’s taste in music, gets the better of him eventually though and his desire for music begins to build again, despite his funds being near non-existent by this stage.
In terms of cinematic craft,The Music Room is a sheer masterclass. Although they have distinctly different styles, I’m reminded of the Japanese directors Ozu and Mizoguchi when I’ve watched Ray’s films. All of them have a seemingly effortless, yet meticulous style and careful handling of the material that is hard to fault. Like Ozu, Ray keeps his narrative fairly simple and sparse, giving time and space for the characters and full weight of situations to settle in, letting the audience actually think about what they’re watching. Like Mizoguchi, Ray incorporates a lot of graceful and carefully plotted camera movement. Framing is thoughtful too, symbolising or emphasising what is happening on screen. A great example of this is when Roy opens the music room for the first time in 4 years (after the accident) and he is placed as a small figure in the top left hand corner of the frame, with a huge dark pillar obstructing most of the right hand side, representing the figurative elephant in the room.
Ray uses sound and music brilliantly too. Most notably in this aspect is when you often hear distant sounds or music coming from Mahim’s house. It pervades the scenes to get into your head the same way it gets in Roy’s, who is torn between jealousy and admiration for the music (or jealousy and annoyance when we hear Mahim’s electrical machinery thrumming in the background).
The music is wonderful too. I know very little about Indian music and don’t have any such albums in my large and otherwise wildly eclectic collection of CDs and MP3s. I found the performances here mesmerising though and went out and bought a Ravi Shankar box set the next day (I’d have bought the soundtrack to the film, but it’s not available). According to the special features included on this disc, Ray’s first love was music, before film. He got into Western classical music originally, but eventually discovered a passion for Indian classical music and by the time he made The Music Room he was knowledgeable enough to hand pick the artists and ragas he wanted for the film. It shows too, as the music is perfect. It had to be hypnotically beautiful so that the audience could understand Roy’s obsession.
In allowing the audience to feel as Roy does in this way, the film’s message isn’t cut and dry. It plays largely as a metaphor for the decay of the caste system (at least in my eyes, but my knowledge of Indian history and culture is minimal), but although Roy is shown as out of touch and deluded as his world crumbles around him, the audience can also appreciate the music and feel the benefit of his recitals. At first I thought Roy was an unlikeable and cruel character in his slovenly, selfish actions, but redeeming features are uncovered as the film goes on and his love for his son feels genuine, particularly after tragedy strikes. This helps justify some of his behaviour in the later years of his life. As such, the film is a rich character study rather than a straight forward telling of a simple story or indictment of an outdated and unfair system.
It’s a marvellous film through and through and I can’t find fault with it. Everything from the performances, to the soundtrack, to the production design, to the camerawork is flawless. It’s further proof that I really need to watch more Satyajit Ray films. Here’s hoping more of his work gets the respectful Blu-Ray treatment Criterion have given this.
The Music Room is out on 7th August on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality is very good. There are some lines on the print, showing its age, but generally the picture is very detailed and sharp. The sound is excellent, doing the soundtrack proud.
You get some excellent special features as usual for Criterion. Here’s the list:
– Satyajit Ray (1984), a feature documentary by Shyam Benegal that chronicles Ray’s career through interviews with the filmmaker, family photographs, and extensive clips from his films.
– New interviews with Satyajit Ray biographer Andrew Robinson and filmmaker Mira Nair.
– Excerpt from a 1981 French roundtable discussion with Ray, film critic Michel Ciment, and director Claude Sautet.
– A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Philip Kemp, a 1963 essay by Ray on the film’s location, and a 1986 interview with the director about the film’s music.
This is a marvellous set of features, particularly the feature documentary which is one of the most in-depth portraits of a director I’ve seen. On top of insightful interviews with Ray, there’s a lengthy sequence at the beginning showing him at work and tonnes of clips from his films which make me more eager to dig deeper into his filmography. The sound quality on this is terrible though – there’s some heavy background interference through much of the running time which is quite annoying. It was likely hard to track down a decent print of it though, so I shouldn’t complain, particularly when the content is so strong. The interviews and round table discussion are very good too, making this an indispensable package.