Music Room, The (1958)
Director: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Chhabi Biswas, Sardar Akhtar, Gangapada Basu
Plot: Biswambhar Roy is a landlord and the last of his kind. With the title, he has none of the perquisites, inheriting diminishing lands that are being eroded by the neighbouring river. But he must maintain the lifestyle of his heritage. This ostentation is most apparent in the grandest room of his mansion, the music room.
Genre: Drama / Music
Runtime: 99 mins
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
There is a beautiful shot of an elephant roaming aimlessly against the vast land. A few seconds later, a small truck rolls past along a sandy path, leaving a dusty swirl that slowly envelopes the creature. This is a glimpse of Satyajit Ray at the top of his game, capturing in a single visual statement of intent the conflict between tradition and modernity, a dialectical tension that permeates throughout his body of work.
The Music Room, one of Ray's most lauded works, is an extraordinary masterpiece. It is a film that is not only rich in its depiction of India's cultural heritage, but also a moving exploration of the lead character's inability to face change.
That character is played by Chhabi Biswas, who also appeared in Ray's The Goddess (1960). He gives a subtle performance with few lines of dialogue, yet vividly portrays a man who is desperately clinging onto royalty, lineage and tradition as modernity threatens to set in.
A grandeur music room in his enormous villa represents his crowning glory of opulence and luxury, but that was in the past. Now, the room is a pale shadow of itself, as Biswas' character indulges in one too many a recital, spending his family jewels away over a short span of time. His servants, one a happy go-lucky fella, another a sort-of-glum-looking thinker in disguise continue to serve him despite his declining fortune.
The Music Room is both poetic and melancholic at the same time, best symbolized by a huge (and lonely) chandelier that hangs conspicuously in the music room. The chandelier, lit with candles, bookends the film, capturing the essence of Ray's film… that greatness does not last forever.
The third act featuring a mesmerizing performance of Hindustani classical music and dance is a showpiece event, with Ray’s camera proving to be the final word in cinematic hypnosis as a beautiful dancer enthralls the viewer with her elaborate movements and rhythmic coordination with intoxicating live music.
While Ray’s first feature, Pather Panchali (1955), gave the world a tantalizing glimpse of what Indian art cinema could be, The Music Room goes one further by circumventing traditional expectations of how music can play a key role in Indian cinema. Song and dance are integrated into the narrative, and at times even driving it – a far cry from the popular notion of Indian movies as being bloated with cheesy, and frequently excessive musical sequences.
The Music Room ultimately seeks to be a meditation of an era long gone, but unlike Biswas’ character, Ray’s greatness does not fade away. In fact, this masterpiece only intensifies his status as one of the great masters in the history of the medium. This could just be his finest work in his oeuvre.
Verdict: An extraordinary masterpiece by the great Satyajit Ray that captures the clash between tradition and modernity in a deeply poetic, melancholic (and musical) way.
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*Last viewing - May 2018