Review: The Music Room (1958)
“To have not seen the films of Ray is to have lived in the world without ever having seen the moon and the sun” – Akira Kurosawa
I believe the man who uttered that line is the greatest filmmaker to have ever stood behind a camera, so the first time I saw that quote I knew I was missing out on something. Director Satyajit Ray made a lasting impression on the likes of Kurosawa and John Huston, two colossal names in film history. Even if I didn’t like the films, they were almost assuredly going to be something I had never seen before. After having watched The Music Room I’d have to say it was a story told in a different way from most.
The story begins with Huzur Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), the governor of a once-great territory in India who has become reclusive, confining himself to his palace and refusing all invitations to leave the premises, seeing as his receding social status is taking its toll on him. The majority of his time is spent listening to a musician play live music for him while he smokes and listens, or playing music himself and training his teenage son to hone his musical talents. In fact, of anything in the film, it’s his son and music that he loves most, with smoking and horseback riding being second loves, or vices as his wife calls them. Unfortunately for the Roy family, his other vice is his foolish pride and it’s what drives his fate, for better or for worse.
There is an early scene where Roy is standing on his terrace and hears music playing in the distance. His servant informs him that the music is being played from the new home of Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Basu), a local self-made business man who happens to be the son of a money-lender, not a position of respect in Roy’s eyes. Upon hearing of the talent of the musician playing in the other home, Roy requests the same company for the party he is to throw for his son’s “initiation”, which appears to be a bar mitzvah sort of ceremony. It’s this sense of if-he-has-it-I-must-have-it pride that is Roy’s defining characteristic. Ganguly personally invites Roy to his home several times throughout the film, each time he is denied, almost spitefully. The scenes between these two men are the most telling in all the film. At the start, Ganguly visits Roy with the utmost reverence in asking his company in his new home, but the reverence erodes as time goes by. Between visits, Roy hears of Ganguly’s new cars, electric machines, and the contemporary and fancy new furnishings populating the now threateningly palatial home of his subordinate, obviously showcasing the inverse amount of success to that of the Roy family.
In fact, Roy is running out of money. In order to secure the proper provisions for his son’s initiation party he mortgages the last of the family’s worth, their sacred jewels, much to his wife’s chagrin. As always in this film, instead of acknowledging weakness, his pride takes over and he puts the family at risk. For Roy, his lineage is his source of pride and power; he is a powerful man who is to be respected because he was born that way, just as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were. The self-made man, Ganguly, presents the sole threat to a monarchy, seeing as he worked for his wealth and that wealth will accumulate as long as he is working for it. In our society, this is to be respected, but in a place where your power and wealth come from your blood-line, then you are always to be looked down upon by some.
Suffice to say, without giving any spoilers, the downward spiral of Roy is gut-wrenching and actually poetic to watch as the film progresses. For me, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than watching a person collapse as a result of their own demons. Man vs. himself is the greatest battle there is, almost unwinnable. And unfortunately, the battle usually takes a serious toll, as is the case of our protagonist.
I’d like to mention two quick points that stand out from this film. First is the lead performance by Chhabi Biswas, who was perfectly cast as the sullen man who knows the inevitable collapse is coming but ignores it nonetheless. His face tells you everything you need to know, which is perfect since there are many scenes without dialogue. He lights up like Times Square whenever music is being played, becoming almost giddy with delight. The subject of money, however, causes him to be silent and distant, or angry and resentful. It’s a very subtle performance though, never getting too excited or too angry unless the moment REALLY calls for it. Aside from those spare moments, Biswas maintains a look of removed calm, like a man who knows he’s finished and just wants to enjoy whatever he has left. It’s quiet and uneventful on the outside, but it’s obviously a different story beneath the surface. Very impressive performance.
The other point is the overall work from Satyajit Ray, who served as producer, writer, and director. Of anything that stood out from this film for me it was the camera work, which included movements that felt like nothing I has seen before. It was almost ghostlike the way the camera floats around the set. A pan is rarely just a pan, it often is combined with a push-in or a pull-out on a dolly. It’s such a strange thing to watch, but it works beautifully, especially during the long musical scenes that take place inside the palace. Most of these scenes are several minutes long with no dialogue, just a musician/singer and maybe a dancer. Even with that going on, a static camera could be too boring. Thankfully, there’s nothing static about Ray’s camera and he keeps these scenes feeling lively and energetic, often pumping suspense and emotion into the scene just with his camera. The work of a true filmmaker.