Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Jalsaghar on Criterion

One of the most exciting bits of movie-related news I’ve heard lately: Satyajit Ray’s 1958 film Jalsaghar has got the Criterion Collection treatment. The DVD should be out in a month or so and it looks sumptuous – the Extras include Shyam Benegal’s 1984 documentary on Ray, as well as interviews with Andrew Robinson and Mira Nair (more here).

This is the first Ray film on Criterion (correction: the first Satyajit Ray film; they already have Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life on their catalogue). I don’t know what factors lay behind the choice (copyright issues, lack of accessibility to other original prints?) but the company often makes unconventional decisions anyway. One can certainly imagine their consulting team passing by acknowledged classics like the Apu trilogy and Charulata, and opting instead for this relatively low-key but beautiful-looking film which represents an important stage in an artist’s personal development.

Plug alert: Manjula Padmanabhan wrote briefly about a scene from Jalsaghar in her essay for The Popcorn Essayists. Here’s an excerpt:
I can see her even now, in my mind's eye.

She's holding one arm out straight in front of her, palm downwards. The other arm is bent at the elbow, hand at the waist. She appears to be stationary but her feet are in motion, drumming the ground with the rapid heel-to-toe movement that causes her ankle-bells to sound. She goes on and on. And on and on. She remains like this for what seems an eternity. Is it the camera or is it the performer? There is the tiniest of smiles playing on her lips, so tiny that it may just be a trick of memory.

If I'm not wrong, the dancer's name in the movie is “Krishna”.

The reason I mention it is that I thought at the time that the name was so perfect. The character of the dancer was beguiling in just that way, not quite feminine, not quite of this world. She was the visual epitome of a flute heard in the forest, bewitching, haunting, ethereal. Watching that performance in the film was for me the heart of the story. Everything else about the plot faded away and became secondary. I realise, as I think back to my reaction, that for the space of the movie, I became the zamindar. In his place, I would have made the same choices.
And here’s an old post – one of many on this blog – about my unreasonable and self-destructive love for Criterion DVDs.


  1. A restored version of Jalsaghar (by Scorsese's Film Foundation) was shown at the San Francisco Film Festival last year. They showed Visconti's Senso the same year also, & that DVD has just come out from Criterion (as did the restored Red Shoes last year). So I think the newly restored movies are being released on Criterion DVD. Which is great news of course. I can finally rest my French Salon De Musique DVD. I was fortunate to see the movie on a big screen at the Ray Archives at the University of California campus at Santa Cruz a few years ago (before this restoration). It was still a better version than the crappy prints I used to see in Calcutta, & the movie has some amazing details & camera work best seen on a big screen.

    Btw, Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding is, I think, the first Criterion release of a film by an Indian director (can we call her that?).

  2. Tipu: Yes, I thought of Nair as well. I see no reason why she shouldn't be called an 'Indian' director. Those of her films which are set here - with the exception of Kamasutra, which over-exoticised matters - are authentically local. It's also to her credit that she directed both Salaam Bombay, a quintessential hardscrabble Bombay film, and Monsoon Wedding, one of the best representations of Delhi on celluloid, and seem equally at ease in both.

    Jai: Exciting indeed. Would be interesting to know if they're willing to look beyond Ray for future releases. Maybe some Guru Dutt? I can just see that essay drawing comparisons between VK Murthy and Greg Toland...

  3. Tipu, Uday: coincidentally I mentioned Monsoon Wedding in a column I wrote for Business Standard (using Jalsaghar on Criterion as the peg) - Pico Iyer's essay with that DVD is terrific.

    Renoir's The River is an "Indian" film in another sense, and the young Ray did spend a bit of time at the shoot - the Criterion print is gorgeous, though I'm not an unqualified admirer of the film. Wrote about Scorsese's touching love for it in one of my Yahoo columns.