By Jason McBride (Seattle, Washington, US)
Watching The Music Room, a Bengali film about a music-obsessed feudal scion with poor money management skills, I was a bit surprised to see the opening credits play against the backdrop of an unlit chandelier swinging like a freshly hung corpse. With the black and white cinematography and frenetic score evoking a pagan trance orgy, I thought I’d accidentally hit play on a Coffin Joe film.
But The Music Room is not horror, unless you loophole in the tragedies humans inflict on themselves. Director Satyajit Ray’s fourth feature tells the story of a cash-strapped aristocrat (Chhabi Biswas) who whiles his days smoking hookah in his crumbling palace, waited on by anxious servants that he may or may not be paying with his dwindling family fortune. The zamindar (an Indian feudal landowner) was once a family man and music aficionado who competed with other local elites to throw the best concerts with the most prestigious performers in his private music room. But one stormy night, en route to one of the palace concerts, his wife and son perish in a boat accident. The zamindar seals off the music room, and himself, forever. Or so he thinks…
Ray was easily one of the great cinematic storytellers of the 20th century. His shot choices, technical know-how, and subtle motifs transform a modest tale about the psychological struggles of reclusive widower into a visual marvel. The Music Room captivates from that first shot of the chandelier, but also, from what I consider the “second opening shot.”
After the credits, Ray jars us with a close-up of the zamindar, looking right at us, eyes heavily lidded in reptilian repose. With the handle of his walking stick leaning against his corpulent cheek, he could be mistaken for a mafia don cradling a cigar. But as the camera holds, and his eyes refuse to blink, you suspect a catatonic state rather than a menacing one, and you find you’re not far off when the old man doesn’t ask his servant for the time, but the month.
This is the first of many great scene collaborations between Ray and leading actor Biswas. Biswas has one of those expressive, regal faces, pulling off the dapper, pre-widowed vivant in flashback, as well as the present-day, broken recluse. As a young man, the landowner gushes over a seasonal flavor in his sherbet; as an embittered old man, when offered the same flavoring, he responds with a dead-eyed stare into the horizon. As a young man, enamored with his own reflection, he gets his official portrait painted; as an old man, he catches himself in the mirror and reacts with terror. Not only do these examples demonstrate Biswas’s range, but Ray’s storytelling acumen: the little details that don’t necessarily propel plot but enliven character.
One thing that doesn’t change over time is the landowner’s disdain for his neighbor Ganguly (Gangapada Basu), a lower caste, self-made man with an oily grin. Ganguly’s avariciousness is matched only by his lack of refinement. At the zamindar’s concerts, Ganguly cares more about the free snuff and liquor than the music. A new money person, he’s enamored with the period’s latest gadgets: electric generators and automobiles, while the zamindar, a classic nobleman, lives in the past. Ray captures the contrast in a famous shot: one of Ganguly’s trucks rattles through the fields, churning up a dust cloud over the zamindar’s old pet elephant.
Ray is clearly conflicted. The idle zamindar, living off the dwindling supply of family jewels, presents a pathetic—and utterly unsustainable—picture of the landed aristocracy. Yet a world run by Gangulys would be one of noisy contraptions, endless opportunism and cheap thrills.
After snapping out of his depression, the zamindar holds one final concert to school Ganguly in hierarchy. Ganguly tries to tip the dancer, but the zamindar’s cane hooks his wrist.
“The owner of the house reserves the right to pay Inam first,” scolds the landowner, and with that gesture, he humiliates the upstart. Even dead broke, his blood will always be nobler than Ganguly’s. But in the modernizing world, that blood’s value is hemorrhaging daily. It’s a hollow victory.
The Music Room’s unhappy ending, foreshadowed by the pendulous chandelier, explicitly suggests a bleak prognosis for the old class. But I would argue that the film, harvesting this conflict and repurposing it into a fine piece of art, breathes new life into those old ways by channeling them through cinematic technology. There’s little alternative.