Criterion Review: The Music Room


Indian master Satyajit Ray once said that music was more important to him than his beloved cinema. In the director’s The Music Room, re-released under the UK’s Criterion Collection label this week, his passion for the former and mastery of the latter is clear.

Based on a Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay short, The Music Room depicts the decline of a wealthy landlord whose vanity and addiction to the pleasures of music lead to his destruction. The film opens on Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) in profound depression, confined to the upper floor of his palace, mirthlessly sipping sherbet and surveying his threadbare surroundings. Cut to a flashback, and the landlord at the apex of his power. Decked in finery and lounging in his opulent music room, a forelock-tugging Ganguly visits Roy to ask his permission for the exploitation rights of the Ganges’ sandbanks.
With Roy’s pseudo-aristocrat in full swing, he receives Ganguly with an affected superiority, dictating to the young entrepreneur the terms of his trading rights. Roy’s airs thinly veil a house circling the drain – with his coffers low, Roy only deigns to see Ganguly because the bank has denied his latest request for a loan to support his decadent habits. As the Ganges encroaches on the banks of the zamindar’s land, his income has stalled, yet he insists on indulging the trappings of his station, mainly elaborate parties with highly-paid musicians.

Roy’s wife, Mahamaya (Padmadevi), is sick of having her jewelry sold off to pay for such extravagances and concerned that their son, Khoka (Pinaki Sengupta), is picking up his father’s bad habits. When Mahamaya takes Khoka to visit her sick father, Roy stays behind to further indulge his vices. Biswambhar Roy is a deeply unlikeable character: vain, irresponsible, and self-indulgent. Yet Ray finds a humanity in his subject’s love of music – a genuine passion informed as much by affectation as by an authentic love of the art.

The film’s musical set pieces, from Khoka’s singing, to the storm sequence, and the final dance by Krishna Bai (Roshan Kumari) are uniformly captivating, both as sensational spectacle and as verses in the film’s dramatic melody. Roy is at the last of a lineage of zamindars, wealthy landlords installed by the British Empire to consolidate their power. He has the trappings and tastes of aristocracy, but is crippled with his own sense of inferiority. His rivalry with Ganguly is key to The Music Room, embodying the film’s sense of class identity in crisis.

Roy is not a selfish monster – quite the opposite in fact – he feels every pang of loss and ruin that he brings on his house, yet his vanity forces him on to further ruin. In one sense, The Music Room is about a society in flux, as the old caste system moves towards capitalism and meritocracy. But more fundamentally, it is a study of the agents of weakness: self indulgence, vanity, and defiant arrogance.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

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