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...