Satyajit Ray is arguably the most famous director to hail from India, a country accounting for nearly one-fourth of the total output of films around the world.  With The Music Room,  he shows the last days of a man who refuses to accept that his status is no longer what it used to be.  By focusing his films on personal relationships and the small intimacies of everyday life (as he did throughout his career), Satyajit Ray was often accused of ignoring India’s social problems, including poverty.  Ray gives us a wonderfully intimate story, a cautionary tale about status and cash flow that has heart, and timeless appeal.

The Players:

  • Director: Satyajit Ray
  • Writer: Tarashankar Banerjee, Satyajit Ray
  • Cast:  Chhabi Biswas, Padma Devi, Pinaki Sen Gupta, Gangapada Bose

Notes:

The film allows the viewer to a vision of an India that existed nearly a century ago.  Taking during the 1920′s,  The Music Room centers on Biswambhar Roy (Biswas), a former aristocratic man who views his personal fortune with delusion.   Roy loves to hire musicians to perform at his home to indulge in the music he loves.  Roy has become so accustomed to this lavish lifestyle that he ignores his servant’s warnings that the funds are low and the expenses are heavy.  Which – unlike the standard Bollywood film- makes the music and dancing intrinsic to the narrative.  Here is a man who insists on bankrolling musical performances, literally at all costs. A man who is unwilling to “face the music”.  At one point, Roy can be heard saying, “If I restrain my expenses, I will lose prestige”.

At a time when his fields have been destroyed by floods and with the Indian government dismantling the Zamindari order (a landowner system that once provided an income to sustain his lifestyle), Roy feels he must protect his status.  But his need to keep appearances becomes increasingly problematic when his neighbor, Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose), begins to amass a small fortune of his own.  Before long, Ganguly flexes his status by also hiring performers to entertain, which Roy can’t stand because Ganguly a commoner under the old system.  Ganguly has lifted his place in society, albeit as a greedy moneylender.  Roy thinks he has to outspend Ganguly.  And during this competition, Roy is perturbed when Ganguly installs an electric generator at his home.  And when he hears that Ganguly is about to have a house warming celebration, Roy’s announces a party of his own, despite being told that he has one last piece of jewelry to mortgage.

With nothing left but respect and sacrifices, Roy’s descent is a morality tale, one in which the protagonist tragically refuses to accept that times are changing.  In a scene towards the end, Roy privately admires the art on his walls, noticing within their reflection that the candles on his chandelier are starting to dim.  With genuine emotional power, Satyajit Ray directs this scene masterfully, establishing a mood that not only feels real, but also manages to give enough breathing room for Roy to arrive at a fateful decision.  That the candles dim is a poetic touch, as much of Roy’s self-destructive actions have been pushed along by Ganguly, a man whose embracing of new opportunities is illustrated by his electric generator.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

Your review of The Music Room may be the longest I’ve read from you… which is not a bad thing.  There is much to talk about here regardless of the relatively small framework of the narrative and characters.  You point out to us that Roy has been compared to King Lear because of his pride, stubbornness, and “the way he loses everything that matters”, a man “so profoundly encased in his existence that few realities can interfere”.  I agree that this is an austere character study.  You provide yet another perspective to this story, structures the conflict as a confrontation between privilege and new wealth.  I like how you share a bit of history on Satyajit Ray, providing a brief introduction to how he became the preeminent Indian filmmaker in the eyes of the world.  By sharing the titles of other fine films by Ray, I find myself looking forward to having a personal festival of his films.  Your review is a story in and of itself, but how you end your review is succinct “Satyajit Ray’s hero deserves the comparison with King Lear, because like Lear he arouses our sympathy even while indulging his vanity and stubbornly doing all of the wrong things. Like Lear, he thinks himself a man more sinned against than sinning. Like Lear, he is wrong”.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like The Music Room?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room this week, he now has 273 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.