A real treat at this year’s LA Film Festival was the screening of a restored print of Satyajit Ray‘s masterful Jalsaghar (The Music Room – 1958). It was presented in conjunction with the Academy who have undertaken the sterling work of restoring the entirety of Ray’s oeuvre; they have made great strides since it was discovered when preparing the presentation for his honourary Oscar in 1993 that what few prints of his films could be found were in a deplorable state, with many elements missing or irreparable.
Ray feared that Jalsaghar would be his last film, following the box office squib of Aparijito (The Unvanquished - 1956) and it is infused through and through with a sense of melancholy, the passing of an order and the supreme importance of art above all else. Ageing zamindar Huzur Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas, soon to be seen in Devi) sits languidly around his decaying palace, watching his barren lands be eroded by the river, and irritated to the core of his being by his new nouveau riche neighbour, Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Basu), the son of a usurer.
The sound of Mahim’s sacred thread ceremony for his son prompts Huzur to hold the ceremony for his own son, in the crumbling grandeur of his jalsaghar, albeit that it is a celebration he can scarcely afford. Men sit on the carpet, recline on pillows, smoke and drink while musicians play: Huzur’s “dangerous passion” for music is reignited. One can see the foolish fondness in the eyes of his puffy face, but also the hard pettiness that has him hold another jalsa, further whittling down his meagre remaining resources, simply so as to refuse an invitation from Mahim; his grand gestures are motivated as much by social jealousy and inchoate disgust at the changing of the social order as they are by the transportative power of the music. Still, as he lolls around his ancient mansion, the music is all that can restore him to life.
It’s a simple story, told in plain enough terms to incorporate a family tragedy that seems a mite excessive in the context of an already perfect melancholy and helplessness at the passing of time, palpable and moving. This is represented in large part by the heart-breaking, faded glory of the palace, and in particular the jalsaghar, dominated by ancestral portraits, chandeliers and a giant mirror, gorgeous in its prime, desperately magnificent even in decay in a spell-binding sequence in which Huzar wanders in semi-delirium from fading candle to fading candle . But at the heart of it all, of course, is the wonderful music, presented in three separate jalsas, eternal, transportative and fully justifying its position as the most important thing in the world.