Director: Satyajit Ray
Satyajit Ray is probably best known for the three films in his Apu trilogy made in the late 1950s, and rightly so. But in 2008 when French directors, critics, and industry executives put together their list of the 100 best films for Cahiers du Cinéma, surprisingly, the one work of Ray's that appeared on the list (at #20) was his little-known 1958 film The Music Room, made between the second and third parts of the Apu trilogy. One of the reasons for this unexpected choice might be the subject of the film, the passing of one era and the dawning of another, a subject of perennial appeal in literature and film and one the French seem particularly drawn to. Another reason might be Ray's attitude toward the subject, which he presents without the sentimentality or nostalgia it so often inspires.
The main character—really the only major character—in the film is Huzur Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas, whose brilliant, moody performance is the film's anchor), a zamindir or landlord, whom we first meet sitting in his dressing gown smoking a hookah on the roof of his dilapidated palace overlooking the land that once belonged to his family. He is one of the last of a class of hereditary landowning gentry living off the income produced by their property. It is the 1920s, and just as in the West during the previous century, a massive redistribution of wealth and redefinition of social class is occurring. People like the Huzur (this is how others in the film refer to him) are being replaced by upwardly mobile entrepreneurs who create their own wealth rather than inheriting it. Unable to continue their genteel lifestyle any other way, these fading aristocrats gradually sell off their land to the enterprising upstarts who are replacing them as the new elite in a world where status is no longer defined by social class, but by wealth.
As the movie opens, Huzur receives a letter inviting him to the sacred thread ceremony—a Hindu rite of passage for teenage boys—of the son of a neighbor, Ganguli. Offended that the invitation has not been issued in person, as Huzur considers appropriate to his social position, he refuses to go. Sitting on the roof, he recalls his own son's sacred thread ceremony, his reverie becoming an extended flashback lasting for the first half of the film which Ray uses as a device to show how Huzur came to be in these circumstances and how he became such a disheveled wreck of a man. The flashback begins with Huzur interviewing the obsequious Ganguli, the son of a moneylender, who wants to lease Huzur's land on the nearby river bank to set up a sand quarrying business. Huzur agrees because he needs the money to pay for his own son's lavish sacred thread ceremony.
Huzur is an idle, imperious man whose one passion is music. His obsession is his jalsaghar or music room, which doubles as a shrine to his ancestors, where he spends his time gloating on his family's past glory while smoking his hookah, reading poetry, playing music, and teaching his son to love these dilettantish pursuits as he does. He is also a proud and vain man, and a wholly intractable one. Over the next few years, as the fortunes of Ganguli rise and his own decline, he becomes even more obdurate in his sense of class entitlement. Time and again his pride and vanity drive him to do foolish and self-destructive things in his attempts to preserve what he sees as the superior status he has inherited. He upstages Ganguli's plans to give a jalsa (concert) on a feast day, seeing this as a usurpation of his right as a landowner, by impulsively scheduling a concert on the same day, even though he must pawn his wife's jewelry to finance it. He pays dearly for his triumph, though, with the deaths of his wife and son, a loss that causes him to seal up the music room and retreat inside his house.
When the music from the sacred thread ceremony of Ganguli's son draws Huzur out of his reverie and back to the present, the first thing he determines to do is reopen the music room, in a sorry state after being unused for years. When Huzur first enters the room, the camera follows his gaze around the shabby room, its carpets, bookcases, family portraits, and ornate chandelier covered in dust and spiderwebs. Walking up to a mirror, he is clearly shocked at his raddled appearance, reaching up to touch his face in disbelief. Music begins to well up on the soundtrack, as though playing in his memory. It is not his love of music reasserting itself, though, but rather his old arrogance and conceit. Still locked in rivalry with Ganguli, he suddenly decides to give another jalsa the next night to celebrate the music room's reopening. The concert is a success, but as in the previous concert, Huzur's almost manic sense of triumph ultimately leads to tragedy.
Huzur was hardly the first of Ray's characters to be petty and unlikable. All of Ray's films I've seen have characters that are in some way unsympathetic, although these people are never portrayed as outright malevolent. In Pather Panchali and Aparajito, the two films in the Apu trilogy that preceded The Music Room, for example, Apu's mother was often petulant and spiteful and his father a feckless dreamer. But the young Apu was a balancing force in those movies, his innocence and good nature offsetting unattractive qualities of some of the other characters. The Music Room, however, is essentially built around one person, and while he is not actively malicious, his churlish pride invariably brings harm to himself and others. I can't think of another Ray film where the focus is such an alarmingly self-centered character with so few redeeming features.
In his inflexibility and egotism, Huzur is a pathetic man, yet Ray treats him, as he does each character in all of his films, with the detachment and objectivity of a neutral observer. He doesn't try to explain or judge him, nor does he try to elicit unearned sympathy for him by portraying him as a victim. Still there is plainly a sense of fatalism in The Music Room. Huzur finds himself in a certain historical and cultural situation, and his nature causes him to react to that situation in a particular way. There is also a definite element of tragedy to the film. Like the characters in classical tragedy, Huzur is wholly lacking in self-awareness, and in his willfulness and blind arrogance is responsible for his ill fortune. Just as Huzur lacks sympathetic traits to temper the negative qualities in his character, the film also lacks the hopefulness that balances the tragedy in the typical Ray film, giving it a bleaker, more downbeat view of life than is the norm for Ray's work.
All this might sound quite literary, and I've written before of how strongly literature seems to inform the work of Ray. Yet despite its literary and thematic underpinnings, The Music Room has the great visual power only a master like Ray can give a film. Both of the jalsas, with their effortless synthesis of music, performance, and narrative, are tremendously sensuous set pieces. The sequence where Huzur emerges from his house after four years of seclusion is also a marvel, with Huzur seeing for the first time how much of his land has been washed away in a flood—virtually right up to the foundations of the house—as three of Ganguli's trucks rumble by in a cloud of dust. "Washed away, everything is washed away," he says, stunned, and he might be talking not just about his land, but about everything in his life.
Ray had an acute sense of the visual effect of settings, and both Huzur's decaying palace sitting in the midst of a vast expanse of naked sand and that music room, a precisely detailed representation of both the transience of the material and the transcendence of art, are impossible to forget. It's no arbitrary choice that the film opens with the credits over the music room's magnificent chandelier shown swaying in the dark with no other details of the room visible. Nor that the last big sequence of the film, the jalsa Huzur gives to mark his return from seclusion, ends with the candles in the chandelier guttering one by one after the guests have left, until finally all are extinguished and the room is in darkness as it was at the very beginning of the film. "All lights are out," Huzur mutters dispiritedly, and both he and the viewer realize how unlikely it is they will ever shine again.