Thursday, 4 August 2011
The Music Room
Starring: Chhabi Biswas, Padmadevi, Pinaki Sengupta, Gangapada Basu, Tulsi Lahiri
By Alan Bacchus
I have to confess that this was my first film from Satyajit Ray, the revered Indian director who is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest film directors ever. In the middle of his famed Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and The World of Apu) he made The Music Room, a glorious meditative character study of an Indian aristocrat clinging to his outmoded, feudal way of life. Even if the Indian culture is too alien for lay-audiences, Ray’s visual style is distinctly Hollywood and wholly accessible, reminding us of a rich and textured studio system of noir films from the 1940s.
Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) is a 'Zaminder', a traditional Bengali aristocrat and landowner who rents his vast tracts of lands to be worked on by peasants and farmers. He’s 'old money', and at this period in his life he spends his time absent-mindedly listening to music and organizing lavish recitals instead of looking after his finances.
After a series of floods and a tragedy with his family, Roy is suddenly alone, his lands nearly wiped out and his finances ravaged with debt. Little by little the riches of his once great family palace are sold off leaving both the carcass of a kingdom and the carcass of a man laying in wake.
Roy’s only solace is his Music Room, a lavish room dedicated to throwing parties to showcase the best music and dance the country has to offer. Ray stages a number of fine musical sequences featuring traditional Indian instrumentation and dance. Now, I admit I'm not a fan of Bollywood musicals or even Indian music in general, but when used in this tragic melancholy story with Ray's superb eye for cinema, it’s a sublime and intoxicating combination.
Ray’s strong themes of class, family legacy and pride resonate as a form of disdainful imperial slavery. His main source of conflict comes from Mahim Ganguly, a self-made business man, who, at Roy's worst moment, hosts his own recital, thus stealing Roy’s thunder. Since Ray has put us in the point of view of the old-world aristocrat, we see Ganguly as an unsophisticated opportunist looking to usurp Roy and best him at the only thing that keeps him alive – his appreciation for music. And yet, we have no reason to sympathize with Ganguly, a man considered a lesser human being by the mere fact that his family does not come from title. Our awareness of this contradiction, the experience of being in Roy’s shoes and identifying with his shameful outlook of life, is wholly complex and intriguing.
Ray’s strong sense of cinema is of the highest order in this picture. The brooding gothic compositions and interior art direction remind us of a classic Hollywood mystery or potboiler. Ray’s camera is constantly moving, following his character through the massive, yet cold and desolate palace. Like the great studio master, Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), Ray pushes his camera in and out of his characters frequently as a silent way of expressing and highlighting their moods and reactions without using words.
The Music Room set is especially brooding. The opening and closing shots feature a chandelier swaying in the wind, as if it has a life of its own. The motif complements the key beat, when, in the final act after the candles of the chandelier appear to shut off in succession, Roy goes mad and falls off the deep end for good. And helping set this mysterious and melancholy mood is Subrata Mitra's delicious high contrast black and white, reminiscent of something Orson Welles would have shot.
In fact, The Music Room has much in common with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, two gothic noir films about patriarchal autocrats and their self-propagating fall from grace. It’s no exaggeration to put The Music Room in their company.
The Music Room is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.