Thursday, September 15, 2011

Exploring "The Music Room"

I wish I knew more about Indian musical tradition, so as better to enjoy "The Music Room," an early film by the the great Bengali director Satyajit Ray. Music infuses every moment, from the opening shot of a beautiful chandelier, laden with glowing candles, to the final climax, which takes place on the empty expanse of a ruined estate. It is also central to the story itself, which follows the decline of Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), an elderly zamindar, a titled landowner, who is obsessed with giving extravagant concerts in the jalsaghar, the music room of his fading palace.

I was worried that this would be a difficult watch, as the director himself famously remarked that he thought the subject matter was too obscure for the film to travel abroad easily. Fortunately "The Music Room" deals in universal themes and Ray's depiction of the story is vivid and easily comprehensible. Though the cultural details may be unfamiliar, the audience is sure to recognize such figures as the indulgent wife Mahamaya (Padma Devi), beloved son Khoka (Pinaki Sen Gupta), and loyal old retainer Ananta (Kali Sarkar). And they will surely understand the significance of Biswambhar Roy's neighbor, the "self-made man" Ganguly (Gangapada Bose), who flourishes in business but craves the respect denied him as one of the nouveau riche. Ganguly's attempts to draw admiration through flashy concerts and celebrations drive an indignant Biswambhar to use his dwindling funds to stage competing events. Though his lands have been rendered nearly useless by the river and his influence and power are waning, he is fiercely protective of the remaining respect afforded him by his position.

In the grand cinema tradition of elderly gentlemen facing hardship in their twilight years, Biswambhar Roy is not one of the more sympathetic figures. We first see him lazing indolently on his roof, only roused by the sound of music in the distance. Multiple times it is pointed out to him that his management skills are poor and his lands could have been saved with better diligence, but he ignores all warnings. Instead, his only real passion is music, which he devotes so much of his attention to, he neglects nearly everything else. Chhabi Biswas's performance initially left me a little cold, because he so perfectly embodies entitled privilege, imperiously looking down at the upstart Ganguly and often remaining impassive during the musical performances in spite of his enjoyment. Sometimes he doesn't even seem aware that he's inviting disaster until it is suddenly upon him. And then Biswas's broad face comes alive with horror and regret, and it is impossible not to feel for his loss.

In the hands of another, "The Music Room" could have been a far darker, more dramatic film, perhaps tying the downfall of Biswambar more closely with the larger decline of the zamindars in the early part of the 20th century. However, thanks in part to the fascinating musical performances that are featured throughout, the film comes across as more of a meditative, introspective character piece. The director establishes wonderful rhythm to Biswambhar's life, marked by gently swaying chandeliers, servants fanning the humid air, and the camera slowly traveling through empty corridors and abandoned rooms. The black and white visuals are lovely, capturing the dilapidation of Biswambhar's family home and surrounding lands, and heightening the effect of the music and dance sequences. The most memorable of these is the final concert, which features a long solo by the dancer Roshan Kumari. It's here that I wish I had more knowledge regarding the styles and history of Indian music. The performance felt distinctly more modern than all the others, and perhaps was meant to be yet another sign of encroaching, inevitable change.

I also appreciated the smaller, subtler moments of humor and humanity in the film. What we see of Mahamaya is brief, but her gentle chidings to her husband carry the weight of years of familiarity. Ananta's affection for his master is palpable, and he develops his own hostilities toward Ganguly, made clear in one of the best comic moments. Though it was shot on location in a real palace, the scope of "The Music Room" is small, with no more than a dozen major characters and all the action taking place in and around a single building. Thus it retains a very intimate feel and personal character. Yet for a film that is so simple, its pleasures are endless.

I suspect that "The Music Room" will yield more enjoyment with additional viewings and better knowledge of the musical traditions being portrayed. However, after only a single viewing, it was clear to me that this film is a masterpiece. I wasn't sure about Satyajit Ray after "Pather Panchali," his most famous film, but now I can't wait to go and explore the rest of his work.

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