Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Jalsaghar: The Music Room

Satyajit Ray, 1958, 93m.

This is a black and white film, but there is little white to be seen. This is a movie about transience. It is about the unutterably sad and melancholy yet defiant and dignified extinction of a man, a family, a way of life, a culture and an era. It is a strange, dark, brooding film. It's a film which stirs in me deep, hidden, forgotten, nameless feelings. You have to be Indian to understand it, and Bengali to understand it fully, which sadly I am not. Yet I am sure it is a film which will whisper different secrets to different folk. Even in Ray's spectacularly varied pantheon, it stands apart and alone, a musical poem belonging to no genre, genius and inspiration stamped all over it.

It's a highly musical film and it speaks more through the language of music than of words and this is what should make it widely approachable. It speaks about the innermost soul of a land and a generation, and nothing short of music could have reached out so deep. Music seems to be of the essence and the cinematography and acting cast a halo around the music, more than vice versa.  The thespian performance of Chabbi Biswas leaves even the likes of tragedy kings  Dilip Kumar and K.L.Saigal panting behind--after all, they never acted for Ray.

We are treated to an intoxicating brew of Indian classical music from the topmost maestros. We have the meditative and pain drenched strains of Ustad Vilayat Khan on the sitar. Bismillah Khan bursts into joyous exuberant  melodies on his shehnai. We have a tantalizingly brief excerpt from a thumri of Begum Akhtar (bhar bhar ayee mori akhian pia bin). There is an extended khayal by Salamat Ali Khan and a dazzling kathak dance.

All these are heard in a room reserved for such soirees in the now somewhat crumbling mansion of feudal landlord Bishwambar Roy, whose resources are coming to an end. He is the gentle scion of an old family and holds out with stubborn tenacity to his inherited lordly lifestyle. His most redeeming feature seems to his total immersion in music--he lives and breathes music and hears it in his mind all the time. Music is his drug of choice. I think this is the Ray part in him. There is also in him a piece of Wajid Ali Khan of Ray's Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players). He loves his wife and son. His son shares his father's passion for music. My own guess is Ray must have been shooting up like a rocket in response to this kind of music.

As his fortune dwindles and as one world is fading into another, unbearable tragedy strikes his life. Nothing is left to him but alcohol since he banishes even music from his life. Of course this is the familiar romantic dissipated alcoholic wastrel but Ray uplifts it to portray a specific society society at a specific epoch, etched with passion and sadness.With two attendants he withers away, glued to his armchair as months or years elapse.

As the movie draws towards the end, like the final outburst of a flame, we are treated to the virtuoso kathak performance by Roshan Kumari. In a moment of exquisite dramatic richness, Roy restrains the hand of his rich but boorish  neighbor, hooking the crook of his walking stick on the others extending wrist, as the neighbour tries to fling coins towards the dancer, asserting his right as host to make the first offering. In a truly electrifying finale, he rides out on a final journey on his favourite horse attired in regalia. The closure is on a tragic note, but it is also a transcendental poetic pointless death defying gesture of bravado, an assertion of his dignity as a man.

Most memorable are the cultural evenings of music or dance in the Jalsaghar, the Music Room. The audience recline forming an arc around the performer. Hookahs are lighted, wine is served, and a servant heaves a large fan (it's before electricity). As the fragrance of music settles, the camera explores the impact in the expressions of the audience. Some are fidgety while others restrain their lumps in the throat or tears and exchange shy glances of shared appreciation. The curtains billow like sails in the evening breeze and the huge chandelier sways as if responding to music.

A masterpiece. I'm knocked out. The second view of the movie cannot be just anytime. One must create the setting and the mood indigo, preferably on a rainy day and certainly to be accompanied by the cup that cheers, just like the magical evenings depicted in the film.

Ebert's Great Movie Essay
Bosley Crowther


Nathanael Hood said...

There can be no discussion or argument: Satyajit Ray is one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived.

Considering what he accomplished coupled with his complete lack of film training, it is a miracle that he was able to revitalize the entirety of Indian cinema.

The nation of India should be proud to call such a visionary, such an elegant humanist, and such a consummate artist one of their native sons.

As an American, I'm jealous.

S M Rana said...

You guys have Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe and Billy Wilder--me jealous too!!

Nathanael Hood said...

Well then, I'll tell you what....

How about we agree to be jealous of each other?

S M Rana said...

Deal. Now don't you back out.