Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (Jalsaghar, 1958) was rather different from his two earlier and more well-known works, Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1957). This time, instead of a multi-perspective, naturalistic account, the film focuses on a single character whose aesthetic obsessions isolate him from the world around him. But such structural differences can sometimes be overemphasized and lead us to neglect an important commonality.
Here again with Jalsaghar, as in most of Ray’s work, the narrative landscape has a significant interior dimension to it. The external events depicted lead us deep into the minds of the principle characters. Such introspection is difficult for the film medium and better suited for printed text, but Ray excelled at this expressive dimension in his films. In fact it is this interior aspect that elevates Ray’s films and distinguishes them from the works of Italian Neorealism, to which genre Ray’s work was initially compared. In the particular case of The Music Room, the most important vehicle for expressing this internal world was music.
Jalsaghar (Music Room) depicts the end days of a decadent zamindar (landlord) set in 1920’s in Bengal, and his efforts to uphold his family prestige even when faced with economic adversity. The landlord, Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), is a just but other-worldly man who loves to spend time listening to music and putting up spectacles rather than managing his properties ravaged by floods and the abolition of zamindari system by the Indian government. He is challenged by a commoner who has attained riches through business dealings, in putting up spectacles and organizing music fests. This is the tale of a zamindar who has nothing left but respect and sacrifices his family and wealth trying to retain it.
Jalsaghar was based on a popular short story written by Bengali writer Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay. After the box office failure of Aparajito, Ray desperately needed a hit film and decided to make a film based on both a popular piece of literature and a film that would incorporate Indian music. It was the first film to extensively incorporate classical Indian music and dancing.
Ray began shooting in May 1957.While in pre-production, Ray and his crew had difficulty finding a suitable location for Biswambhar Roy’s palace. By chance they met a man who recommended the palace of Roy Chowdhurys in Nimtita, known as the Nimtita Rajbari and Ray decided to scout the location. To his surprise the palace was not only perfect for the film but just so happened to have once belonged to Upendra Narayan, whom Bandopadhyay had based his main character on when first writing the short story. Ray worked closely with composer Ustad Vilayat Khan on the film, although he was initially uncertain about the composer’s musical choices and had to convince Khan to make more sombre music pieces for the film.
Jalsaghar is very stylized, melancholic, and brooding. This film demonstrates the fundamentally introspective aspect of Ray’s cinematic storytelling. For this presentation of an inward-looking soul, however, Ray needed not so much naturalistic innocence, which was intrinsic to the characters of Pather Panchali and Aparajito, but instead a theatrical performer capable of projecting his inner uncertainties. For this he chose the accomplished Indian senior actor Chhabi Biswas to play the role of the zamindar, Biswambhar Roy. Chhabi Biswas was certainly a veteran performer; this was just one of sixteen film roles that he undertook in 1958.
The Visual highlighting and accentuating Biswambhar Roy’s inner turmoil is very well dramatized. The zamindar’s mansion, itself is a bleak compelling image of decadent and now petrified majesty. Its cavernous, gloomy interior is accentuated by the numerous extreme high and low-angle camera angles that Ray employs. There are also many recurring shots of the music room’s own symbol of grandeur – its multi-candled chandeliers. And, of course, there are the explicit omens: the struggling insect in Roy’s wine glass and the large black spider that he sees that besmirches his majestic portrait.
The film’s music penetrates further into the interior dimension. Ray engaged the finest classical Indian musicians and performers of his day. The musical score was composed and performed by Vilayat Khan, a famous sitar player of equal magnitude to Ravi Shankar, who had scored Ray’s two previous films. In addition, there were the onscreen performances of Bismillah Khan (shehnai player), Begum Akhtar (singer), Roshan Kumari (the dancer), and Ustad Waheed Khan (sitar and surbahar player). They create the seductive music that so preoccupies Roy and leads him to neglect everything around him.
So is Biswambhar Roy a tragic hero, or is his self-indulgence too extreme to elicit our sympathies? Certainly he represents a decadent aspect of Indian aristocracy that was giving way to modernism. But at the same time, we can understand the zamindar’s reverence for exquisite music and art. Ray, himself, undoubtedly felt the tensions between utilitarian modernism and the aesthetic dimension of the human soul. He came from a cultured background, and he was a highly accomplished artist in many forms – calligraphy (he designed original typefaces), painting, music (he played the piano and composed the scores of many of his films), and writing (he published written works in both prose and fiction).
Certainly Ray gives us the feeling that the tension between art and life is not just a matter of escape from real-world concerns. There is a humanizing aspect of art and music that reminds us of the meaningful moments and interactions that elevate us all. Ray would return to this subject some twenty years later with his The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khiladi, 1977). With that later film, however, there was a somewhat different and more subtle theme expressed. In The Music Room, the protagonist is virtually solipsistic – he is happy to self-indulge his artistic desires in complete isolation. But in The Chess Players, where again the aristocratic nabobs fritter away their time in aesthetic diversions, there is at least a recognition that art can be a medium for higher levels of human compassion and engagement. In that film the compulsive art enthusiasts do not triumph, but they do not die, either. They live on, appreciating in the end that the highest form of artistic engagement is loving human interaction.
- Screenplay, Produced & Directed byS atyajit Ray
- Based on Short story ‘Jalsaghar’ by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay
- Casting: Chhabi Biswas; Padma Devi; Pinaki Sen Gupta; Gangapada Bose; Tulsi Lahari; Kali Sarkar; Ustad Waheed Khan; Roshan Kumari & Begum Akhtar
- Music by Vilayat Khan
- Cinematography by Subrata Mitra
- Editing by Dulal Dutta
- Studio: Aurora
- Distributed by Contemporary Films (UK) & Edward Harrison (US)
- Release dates is 10 October 1958 (India)
- Running time of 100 minutes