Monday, December 5, 2011

Satyajit Ray | Jalsaghar (The Music Room)

trapped in the past
by Douglas Messerli

Satyajit Ray (screenplay [based on a story by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay] and director) Jalsaghar (জলসাঘর) (The Music Room) / 1958

Satayajit Ray's fourth feature film is one of his finest, even if it is, at times, almost lugubrious in pacing and thematics. But then the world of Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), one of the last traditional feudal Zamindar's (landlords) of 1930s is a place of stasis, Roy languidly sitting on the top of his palace, while smoking a hookah, as he stares down on the decaying rooms which were once filled with joyful celebrations and overlooking the land which for years served his forefathers, but which is now mostly flooded, with backwater channels serving as access for small boats.

     The film begins with Roy hearing a melody, part of what he knows to be the Thread ceremony, celebrating the coming of age of a son. In this case the ceremony is being carried out in the nearby home of Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose), a former loanshark who has made it well, and for years has attempted to get the attentions of the lordly Roy. Roy has been invited to the ceremony, as his servant Ananta (Kali Sarkar) reminds him, but he no longer leaves his large house. It is as if memories and time have frozen him into place. Ray uses the music, accordingly, to retrack prior events, demonstrating how Roy has reached this position. It is, of course, a kind of creaky device, employed in hundreds of grade B movies; but in this case, since Roy's major love is music, it works almost as a kind of Proustian trope, music opening up the story while presenting us with a brief history of traditional Indian musical works. One might almost quip that The Music Room is a sort of early variation of the Bollywood film, except that there is far less emphasis on Western traditions than there is on ancient Bengali music. Only the neighbor is fascinated with all things Western, while Roy is caught up, one might say, trapped, in the past.

      But what a glorious past that was! The director shoots entire scenes of music performances, beginning with the Thread ceremony, this held for Roy's own music loving son, Khoka (Pinaki Sen Gupta). The guests are mostly awed by the beauty of the music as they sit upon the carpets spread out throughout the lovely music room, topped with a swaying chandelier and filled with beautiful objects. Only Ganguly seems uncomfortable, envious perhaps, but also sweating his way through the performance as if his discomfort emanated from his inability to sit so long in languor. He is a man of the future, a man hardly able to pause in a world of rapid change.

     Roy's son is also learning to sing, and his lovely performance, eventually interrupted by the slightly petulant mother (Padma Devi) is one of the most endearing moments of the film. We soon discover that she has every right for her peevishness. Little by little, her husband has sold most the home's belongings, and for payment of the initiation ceremony, he has pawned her jewels. Soon after, she determines to visit her aging father, taking Khoka with her, leaving Roy, somewhat fearfully, by himself.

     Another kind of noise is heard in the distance, a kind of rhythmic beating that one might almost call music (certainly Cage might have described it as such). When Roy asks his servant about it he is told that it is the a generator atop his neighbor's house, and from that instant on, except for the moments of musical performances, we hear the generator pumping away in the distance, a symbol of the end of a quiet and placid world in a time of movement and dust, as new goods are transported to the neighbor's house along a dirt road.

      Goaded on by Ganguly's celebrations, Roy suddenly determines to hold another musical salon, using a final bag of jewels for payment and calling for the return of his wife and son. As the event begins, a huge storm has arisen, and Ray symbolizes his character's growing obsessions and the possibilities of fate by focusing on a small paper boat that has been blown over in the wind, a spider trapped behind glass. As the concert begins Roy's family has not get returned and, growing impatient, he searches out his servants for news of their return. The boat has been caught in a whirlwind, and his wife has been lost at sea, his son drowned.

     So we now comprehend the indolent man sitting atop his roof, looking with despair upon the world around him. He has, seemingly, lost everything. His world is over. The music room has been closed.

     Yet he does still have his title, the respect of the locals, the memories of his former grandeur. When Ganguly again visits him to invite him to an musical event with the great dancer Roshan Kumari and singer Begum Akhter, Roy again declines. "I will not leave my house," he declares.

      Roy, however, is still a proud and foolish man, and determines with his last small bag of coins to hire the two performers for his own final celebration. Again the music room is opened, the light lit, the rugs put to floor, the wine poured into glasses. This performance is perhaps one of the finest traditional Indian dance and song ever filmed. It alone is worth watching all that has proceeded. The event is a great success, and when Ganguly offers to pay Roy prevents him, throwing his last coins at the feet of the performers. We recognize his life has pyschologically come to an end.

     We hardly need the rest of Ray's story, wherein, after the candles have extinguished one by one, Roy takes to his horse, madly speeding away across what is left of his once rich fields. Suddenly the great Zamindar is thrown from the beast, his frightened servants rushing to his side to tearfully embrace this once great man.

     We recognize, however, that that "greatness" is a double-loaded word. Throughout Ray makes certain that we comprehend the immense self-serving pride and foolishness of Biswanbhar Roy, that he is a self-enchanted poobah of his own making. He could not possibly have shifted from his feudal concepts into the 20th century India that was at the edge of a great transformation. Roy's greatness, perhaps, lies primarily in his love of art, not his abilities to live and work with his fellow man. His was an esthetic reality, not the practical reality of day to day life, and in that fact, he was more a servant to his society and its circumstance than were those who worked upon his land.

Los Angeles, November 28, 2011
(c) copyright 2011 by Douglas Messerli and International Cinema Review.

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