The Music Room (Jalsaghar) Review
Jalsaghar (The Music Room) is the fourth film from renowned director Satyajit Ray, made in 1958 shortly before he would complete his Apu trilogy. The Music Room finds Ray in audacious form and, in some ways, can be regarded as a musical drama. However, the strictly diegetic performances within the narrative set it against the kind of show-tune set-piece musical international audiences would have been used to at the time. It’s not the kind of romantic fantasy thing you’ll be tapping your feet to or find you’re still humming days later. Musical interludes aside, the elegant screenplay explores Indian society with a sharply critical voice.
The story is about Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), a Zamindar, whose love of music has distracted him to the point of ruin, whilst relying on the luxury his position affords. His neighbour (Gangapada Bose), the son of a moneylender, is proving adept at making money and carving himself a destiny, despite lacking the respect the Zamindar attracts. The film begins with the Zamindar lonely and ironically surrounded by silence. He hears music from his neighbour’s property and is inspired to remember his past, where he had a family and held lavish concerts in his grand music room to great acclaim. Back in the present, despite not having the means to do so, he endeavours to host another recital.
There is a refreshing lack of exposition in the film. In fact, Ray was unconvinced The Music Room would be an international success (it was), possibly because of detail about Indian society left ambiguous. A Zamindar is an Indian aristocracy and while it translates as landlord or landowner, he is seen in an affectionate light by those he is ostensibly responsible for. Roy is referred to as “Grandfather” more than once and it wouldn’t matter if he was penniless. He would be loved unconditionally anyway. On the other hand, there is nothing as vulgar as money, hence Roy’s dismissive tone when dealing with over-eager neighbour Mahim Ganguly, who is probably doing more good for the area than his landlord ever did; and yet, he would never appear to be taking advantage of his host’s benevolence.
Albeit throttled by polite etiquette, the push and pull relationship Roy has with Mahim's modernity is not unlike the stalemate between Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood. And the cinematic bloodline that connects the two films began with Citizen Kane. Both films lack a denouement quite as elegant as Orson Welles’ “Rosebud” reveal, but There Will Be Blood at least hammers its point home with gusto. Sadly, The Music Room fizzles awkwardly in a clumsy finale. There is no avoiding the fact that the deeply flawed Roy makes this an overt tragedy from the opening scene, despite the light touch, measured pace and touches of humour.
Of course, that is Satyajit Ray’s point. In his own words, the film deals with "a music loving Zamindar who refuses to change with the times and thereby meets his comeuppance." Therein lies a problem with the film; are we to sympathise with Roy? Because he is a frustratingly feeble subject in spite of Chhabi Biswas’ likeable, affecting and layered performance (ironically, Bose’s Mahim is the opposite: a disagreeable individual who hasn’t done anything to earn our distrust). And worse, Roy will never be condemned for failing to manage the land. This prince is allowed by his loyal subjects to become but a speck of dust in a desert of sand.
The cast around Roy share our exasperation and his two cheerfully hapless servants provide a dash of comic relief. The dialogue has an effervescent wit that undercuts the prophetic narrative and visually, it is occasionally hypnotic. Ray’s grasp of mise-en-scène accentuated by shadow and depth of field puts him on a par with Akira Kurosawa. Every frame bursts with energy and movement, even when there is no actual action. The eponymous music room itself is huge and opulent, reminding one of Charles Kane’s Xanadu. It is a testament to Roy’s love of music but, like his Wellesian cousin, also to the ego that imprisons him, to his need to demonstrate his position to those around him.
The musical interludes that take place in that room are wonderful, varied and a great insight into Indian tradition. They were performed by great names from the time. It’s fascinating that Ray can shift into music sequences so fluidly that you barely notice that they effectively become a set-piece, but not so indulgent that it would suffer the loss of focus so common in traditional musicals. Even when there is no music, the sound is a constant; it’s right to describe the film as peaceful, but it is never quiet. Roy’s memories echo within the walls of his crumbling palace.
The technical endeavour is frequently breathtaking; this is cinema being shaped and moulded by a master filmmaker and, as with Citizen Kane or Seven Samurai, there are moments which will make you fervently wish there were more of the original maverick directors working today, warping film to their will. Satyajit Ray can be mentioned without pause with Ozu, Kurosawa, Welles, and Hitchcock, all revolutionary filmmakers who understood their audience. Therefore, it is a shame that Ray’s fourth film ultimately lacks the emotional heft that made his Apu trilogy so fondly remembered, not just as a museum piece to be admired from afar.
The Music Room is lavish, beautiful and vibrant, with a terrific central performance. And yet it is difficult to sympathise with the Zamindar and so the film remains curiously distant.
The full-frame 1.33:1 transfer is fantastic. There is no hiding the age of the film, or at least its source, so the contrast, in particular, suffers during dark outdoor scenes, but it is clean and consistent, with no artefacts. The indoor scenes are striking and capture Ray's attention to detail and the faded opulence of the palace.
The original monaural Bengali soundtrack again shows its age but is excellent and clear. The subtitles have been improved for this release.
- 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.
Reliable as ever, this superb release from Criterion has a curated set of extra features that together explore the career of Satyajit Ray. Shyam Benegal's documentary is a particular treat. Perhaps there was room for more specifics on The Music Room, such as a commentary, but of course, the film's history is put into context at least. It's a shrewd choice on Criterion's part that this release is as valuable as a documentary on the great director.