Ranking: #25/111

Director: Satyajit Ray (India)

Genre: Social Drama

All great works of art carry a power which those viewing them can feel. That’s how you recognise a work of art – you sense a power emanating from it which you can’t always explain but which you can feel. Jalsaghar (The Music Room) carries such a power in the intensity of the performance of the central character, Biswambhar Roy, a formerly powerful landowner and nobleman, depicting a slow descent into insanity resulting from an insatiable megalomania.

The screenplay was based on a classical Bengali short story of the same name by Tarasankar Banerji. Ray stated in an essay in 1963 that he saw in the story the scope for “mood, for atmosphere, for psychological exploration.” (“Winding Route to A Music Room” by Satyajit Ray)

The plot is simple enough, it’s the psychological study that’s most compelling. Chhabi Biswas gives an incredibly nuanced performance as a self-indulgent landlord (zamindar) in Bengal, trying to keep up his prestige during a time of economic decline when he has fallen into debt. Roy’s passion is listening to music and putting on cultural soirées showcasing Bengalese musical talent. At one point, he even mortgages family jewels to pay for a singer at one of his recitals. His wife is forthright, describing this as “a dangerous addiction for you.” And yet this pastime is his only solace.

Meanwhile, his properties are not being properly maintained against flooding. The river has risen to flood formerly fertile fields surrounding his home. In addition, there is a new, more democratic society in India. We witness in his downfall the decay of feudalism itself.

Nonetheless, Biswambhar Roy holds on to his aristocratic demeanour and lifestyle even though it is outdated and no longer economically sustainable. This is a poignant social portrait of someone who can’t adapt to political, social and economic change and who has been left stranded by the tides of time. Ray said his character was “sort of dying” (“On the Music of The Music Room: An Interview with Satyajit Ray”). While showing some sympathy for him, Ray also shows him to be, ultimately, an incorrigible narcissist. He is living beyond his shrinking means in order to feed his addiction to prestige and self-importance.

Jalsaghar (The Music Room) is also a study of the corrosive effects of jealousy. Not only is Lord Roy on the wrong side of history, but he hates the nouveau riche living around him. In particular, a neighbour who is a commoner and a self-made man, who got rich riches through money-lending, becomes his arch rival. This rivalry intensifies when the man, Mahim Ganguly, starts putting on musical evenings which compete with his own soirées. We the audience watch the erosion of the main character’s influence as he ends up squarely on the wrong side of history. This is the story of a man who cannot recognise the signs of his own demise. Things are unbalanced and headed for tragedy. He is both financially and morally bankrupt.

The stately mansion (which was an old palace in the Murshidabad district Ray chose for the main setting for the film) seems to symbolise the decline, with its faded trappings of aristocracy. Ray portrays the house as haunted by its past. And Roy’s faithful servant, Ananta, is a remnant from the time of this former opulence.

There’s an air of sadness in the music room itself, scene of the musical recitals. For example, its beautiful chandelier becomes a symbol of a glory that has passed, especially when it sways in the wind and storm. One of my favourite images in the film is of a reflection of this chandelier in a glass of wine. It’s a picture worth a thousand words.

Throughout, Ray uses oblique camera angles to show Lord Roy’s growing isolation in a way that is very reminiscent of how Orson Welles portrays his main character in Citizen Kane.

The movie ruthlessly, yet subtly, portrays the decline of a nobleman left behind by history, someone who cannot adapt to changing society. Through facial expressions and atmospheric mise-en-scène, Ray conveys the slow death of a way of life as well as an overwhelming pathos, a lingering sense of loss in the face of the exorable power of history and time.