Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shades of Ray: the restored Jalsaghar

One of my Bengali friends tells me that when he watches a Satyajit Ray film on DVD with his non-Bengali wife, it takes them twice the movie’s running time to get through it. “I have to hit Pause every two minutes just to explain the finer points of a dialogue that was mangled by the subtitles.”

Wretched subtitling on home-grown DVDs is one among many reasons to welcome the fine new Criterion release of Ray’s 1958 classic Jalsaghar (The Music Room), about a music-loving zamindar living his last days alone in his decrepit palace as the world changes around him. Another reason is the film’s tremendous visual and aural beauty, something I could fully appreciate only when I saw it on this restored print – much superior to the faded, scratch-ridden TV version that assailed my senses a few years ago.

Right from the opening-credits shot of an ominously swaying chandelier (which will be an important part of the film’s mise-en-scene), Ray’s distinct visual sense and Subrata Mitra’s camerawork draw us into a world of grandeur lost and briefly regained. There are many exquisite shots, such as the one of the protagonist, Biswambhar Roy, gazing into an unpolished mirror, wiping the dust away with a puzzled expression, almost as if wondering if the great days of his past were an elaborate dream. Or the plaintive shot of him leaning on his stick, watching a lonely elephant in the distance. The new transfer makes these images vivid, perhaps bringing them close to the images Ray had in his head when he set about conceptualising the film. And the audio restoration is just as important, for Jalsaghar’s background score is by Ustad Vilayat Khan, and the film contains performances by such classical-music doyens as Begum Akhtar and Wahid Khan as well as a brief appearance by Bismillah Khan. A story about a magnificent, all-consuming obsession for music deserves nothing less.

This is a film about hubris and decay - classic themes of great drama - and about a society in transition, but at a more intimate level it’s the story of an individual falling into madness. Ray’s attitude towards the feudal system was not an approving one, and you can’t imagine him being over-sympathetic towards his tragic lead character - in fact, he had some reservations about Vilayat Khan’s score because it seemed to romanticise the zamindar. But Biswambhar Roy isn’t merely a representation of an archaic, hyper-privileged way of life that is now crumbling into the sand like Ozymandias’s statue: he is also a melancholy old man who has lost his family, most of his possessions and his status, and who is watching the only world he ever knew becoming irrelevant. Whatever you think of the class he belongs to, you can’t help feel for him on some level, and Chhabi Biswas’s magnificent performance, along with the film's use of music (and our perception that this haughty landlord was a genuine patron of art and artistes) makes us emotionally ambivalent towards Roy.

This friction propels the film. On one of the extras on the DVD package, director Mira Nair observes that given her own utter lack of interest in royalty, it’s remarkable how much she felt for the central character. I know what she means.

Jalsaghar is also a key work in the context of Ray’s career: made shortly after the first two entries in the Apu trilogy, it came at an early stage in the forming of his reputation, both in and outside India. At that time, based on Pather Panchali and Aparajito, it was possible to pigeonhole him as a director who would operate in the mode of documentary-like minimalism; an objective chronicler rather than a stylist. (Hard as it is to imagine, during the earliest days of his career, some Western critics assumed that he came from a rural, uneducated background and that Pather Panchali, with its village setting, was an autobiographical work! Even today, some movie buffs are largely unaware of the rich vein of fantasy in his family background, and of his children’s films like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Sonar Kella.)

But it’s clear that from the start, Ray intended Jalsaghar to be a film of visual flourishes. In an essay in Our Films, Their Films, he admitted that having won an award at Cannes shortly before making this movie, he allowed himself the indulgence of a crane for overhead shots (an accident with the bulky equipment would lead to the death of a coolie, causing Ray immense regret; clearly, he lacked Werner Herzog’s stoicism when it came to the casualties of filmmaking!). There are carefully composed shots which draw attention to themselves – the chandelier reflected in a glass, a spider scuttling across a portrait, a view of a stormy sky seen through the windows of the music room – as well as zooms and tracks that stress the contrast between the zamindar’s past glory and the delusions that now crowd his mind. One constantly gets the impression of a director trying to use the camera in inventive ways.

Perhaps this might explain why Jalsaghar was a bit of a puzzle to its initial audiences (who had formed their own ideas about the “type” of director Ray was going to be) and why it took relatively long to be rediscovered and appreciated. But happily it’s here to stay now, and I think it’s close to the first rung of his work.

P.S. This will sound whimsical, but Jalsaghar’s opening-credit sequence, with the camera moving ever closer towards that chandelier, and Vilayat Khan’s score becoming increasingly urgent, reminds me – of all things – of the opening sequence of John Carpenter’s Halloween, with the glowing pumpkin pulling us towards it. Yes, I know I have a weird mind. But just wait till I write that thesis about how both the chandelier and the pumpkin are deceptive facades, eventually revealed to be hollow, and symbolic of the inner emptiness of the central characters...


  1. I recently watched Visconti's Senso & Leopard, & both of those movies, dealing with fading minor royalty (Valli & Lancaster, respectively) & their calamitous dealings with the nouveau riche, reminded me a lot of Jalsaghar. Even Bertolucci's 1900 which isn't anywhere near the other 2 movies in craftmanship or impact (though it has both Valli & Lancaster in it :-)) has some elements of the high vs. the low, the padrone (De Niro) & the peasant (Depardieu). There are many other Western books & movies about upward & downward mobility (Magnificent Ambersons, Austen, Bronte etc.) which makes me wonder if that is one of the reasons Jalsaghar is one of Ray's best loved works in the US & Europe.

  2. Tipu: yes, the parallels with The Leopard are quite striking. This might sound strange to you, but I also think there are thematic similarities with Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The still-photograph-like opening shot of Chhabi Biswas reminds me a lot of John Wayne's final appearance in that film.

  3. PS: Didn't you find a similarity between Jalsaghar & Amityville Horror, with its houses devouring its occupants while at the same time being devoured by the body of water next to it? :-)

    But seriously, Ray's own Monihara from Teen Kanya has a few similarities with Jalsaghar (without the ghostly element of course, for that see Halloween & Amityville). The zamindar, the drowned wife, the attachment to worldly goods...

  4. Liberty Valance - you mean in terms of a man living on his reputation? Or of being helped by another person to save face? Interesting perspective. I wouldn't have thought of that. Its been some time since I saw Valance, so I don't recall the final shot.

  5. No, in terms of the Wayne character Tom becoming a casualty of historical change and progress - have written about it in that post. The march of time sweeping away a way of life and all that...

  6. The problem of economically affordable DVDs still remains. Criterion is too costly, while Palador's site seems to be down. Viable option is Flipkart whose collection is neither large nor high on quality. :-(
    What does the movie loving Indian audience do?

  7. I guess this was the last film in which Mitra worked with Ray. There was a very complex shot, which Mitra spent hours on. But Ray edited it out and Mitra got pissed. From Charulata, I guess Ray started handling camera more or less himself. Your post is compelling me to watch it. I did try couple of years ago to watch it late in the night. But I think Ray demands patience. I slept within half an hour then. Was just wondering to ask you. If you compare the first ten years of work, whose work is better Ray or Benegal? You may find my question ridiculous but still

  8. Pessimist Fool: not a ridiculous question at all, but I definitely prefer Ray - his storytelling is more fluid and much more visually interesting. Have mixed feelings about a lot of Benegal's work anyway.

    This wasn't Mitra's last film with Ray, by the way - he did many more, right up to Nayak.

  9. The problem of economically affordable DVDs still remains.

    indisch: for the longest time, my staple diet was the pirated Criterions I got from Palika Bazaar for Rs 200 or less. Have at least 50-60 of those "original copies". But now that I've developed an appetite for the originals - complete with proper packaging, booklets and all - it will be very difficult to go back!

  10. Oh it was Nayak. Somehow I like the first ten years of Benegal career more - he grew more complex with every film till Mandi...but yeah for the entire body of work, obviously Ray is miles ahead. On a funny note, I gifted Benegal's films like Bhumika, Junoon, Kalyug to some of my friends only to be cursed by them after they watched it.

  11. ...symbolic of the inner emptiness of the central characters...

    Is that a subtext that needs to be interpreted, as in, did the director really want the viewer to see it as a symbol of something? Could it have been just a studio prop, which served only a visually aesthetic purpose, as opposed to a thematic undercurrent?

  12. rantings: that postscript was mainly a joke - rest assured, I'm not really going to write a thesis comparing Michael Myers and Biswambhar Roy! (Maybe just a blog post when I'm very old.) But yes, in this case the chandelier - with its dimming candles and cobwebs - seems like a very deliberate symbol, given the prominent role it plays throughout the film.

  13. Really, really cheered by the idea of someone like Criterion restoring this movie - I've always been irritated by the sorry (print) state of our older movies. See the popularly available print of Sahib, Biwi Aur Ghulam as an example. Hoping more people take up this task.

  14. Tipu ,interestingly, Visconti and Ray made those movies at a similar point in their careers. Visconti's La Terra Trema,inter alia, was from the neo realist stable.
    And by the way,the themes explored even in Appu Trilogy are fairly common in World Cinema.
    Jai , I have to disagree with the assertion that Ray was an "objective chronicler rather than a stylist". (Actually I think thats a false dichotomy , but anyway)
    I think even in Pather Panchali the style of Ray is very assured and unmistakable. I will call it musical realism, just like in music a particular emotion is stressed at the expense of others, Ray did the same aided by the wonderful background score of Ravi Shankar.
    Though I would agree that it is perhaps not as "visual" a film as Jalsaghar.

  15. Jai , I have to disagree with the assertion that Ray was an "objective chronicler rather than a stylist".

    Rahul: well, yes, so do I. Hope you didn't think I was making any such assertion. All I said here is that it was possible for viewers to pigeonhole Ray as an "objective chronicler" after seeing his first two films. Not denying that there's a distinct style on view in Pather Panchali and Aparajito (especially when we see them now, already knowing about Ray's career). But in 1956 it was possible even for discerning cineastes to think that Ray was more a chronicler of social realities than a "cinematic" director (in the limited sense of that word). And Jalsaghar is definitely a more showy film than those two.

  16. I got my copy today. It is a delight to see it restored, with top notch video and audio.

  17. Jai, I know you didn`t but I thought I would offer my 2 cents.:)
    Another point I wanted to make is the patently false dichotomy that is posited by ``Objective Chronicler vs Stylist``. Consider Ozu , there is almost no panning movements in his camera and his movies seem plot less - so he can, by a certain common sense ,be said to be an objective chronicler - but he is one of the great stylists in cinema.
    I think there is an inherent polemic involved in the definition of objective chronicler when it comes to cinema, and its not easy to resolve it, and hence this posited dichotomy is not of much value.

  18. Another point I wanted to make is the patently false dichotomy that is posited by ``Objective Chronicler vs Stylist``. Consider Ozu , there is almost no panning movements in his camera and his movies seem plot less - so he can, by a certain common sense ,be said to be an objective chronicler - but he is one of the great stylists in cinema.

    Yes, no argument with that. This is one reason why I've started using quote-marks around "cinematic", because more often than not the word refers to a superficial and limited idea of what type of filmmaking is "cinematic" and what isn't.