When exploring the work of a great director, it’s always hard to know what the best “next steps” are outside of their most highly regarded work. This is something I had to figure out when deciding to watch a Satyajit Ray film for this year’s Criterion Month, since Sean had effectively taken the Apu trilogy off the table. I have to imagine that those films are also probably the best introduction to Ray, which perhaps put me at a disadvantage when watching a film like The Music Room that was made around the same time as these more famous films. Still, The Music Room seems like it was a solid choice, since several esteemed filmmakers and critics like Mira Nair, Werner Herzog, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael are all big fans of the film. While I had a bit of a hard time sinking my teeth into this one, it still does make me curious to explore more of Ray’s work.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to wrestle with in regard to The Music Room is its structure, which takes place over the course of years, but never really feels that way. The film opens on an aging zamindar (basically a wealthy landowner) named Biswambhar Roy (played by Chhabi Biswas), who has seen his grand palace start to show the ravages of time. It is the 1920s and Roy is the last in a long line of landlords, but now has little cultural influence in the wake of Indian independence, and mostly spends his time in his music room watching musicians perform for him and his colleagues.
After this opening sequence, the film flashes back a lot, showing different performances in the music room (or jalsaghar) of varying importance. One of the first memorable ones is in honor of his son’s coming-of-age “thread ceremony”, where we see a group of people watching musicians perform classical Indian music to the audience’s (and especially Roy’s) delight. The second performance is a bit more on the eerie side, foreshadowing the death of Roy’s wife and son in a terrible storm that happens offscreen. Then there’s the final performance, the one that Roy organizes after years of solitude and neglect of his palace, which features a performance so good that Roy spends the last of his money on tipping the musicians.
There are a few elements at play in The Music Room that make it a hard movie to comprehend if you’re not all that familiar with the context of the film. For one, the whole “end of an era” vibe that the film has was a little lost on me when I don’t have a deep knowledge of India’s history (and RRR didn’t really help), since the film doesn’t hold your hand in explaining this context. Also, I can’t imagine you’d be that enamored with The Music Room if you don’t have a ton of appreciation for classical Indian music. I would say I’m not at a complete loss in this regard, since I feel like my fascination with the ’60s has given me a little bit of experience with Ravi Shankar (who actually scored the Apu trilogy) and the various Western musicians he influenced.
In regards to the musical performances, they are mostly pretty intoxicating, even if they sometimes feel like they take over the film at the expense of us ever really getting to know Biswambhar Roy as intimately as it feels like we should, considering how much time we spend with him. Or perhaps it just felt a little imperfect compared to the way my last film, The Girl Can’t Help It, very economically interspersed its musical performances with its plot, even though I realize very few people would consider that a superior film. But even if I do feel like Roy remains a bit of an unsolved mystery, it’s undeniable that Chhabi Biswas has quite the onscreen gravitas, even if I have a tough time empathizing with someone who’s essentially a do-nothing landlord.
Even though I did struggle with this one a bit, it has still grown on me a bit since watching it last night, just because it didn’t feel like many films I’ve seen. There’s a boldness to Ray’s flouting of traditional character development and story arcs, and the way the film drifts through time periods gives it a dreamy feel befitting of the sitar-laden drone of its soundtrack. That’s all to say that I didn’t instantly fall in love with Satyajit Ray upon my first viewing of his films, but I can easily see what elements are there in his filmmaking that makes it special, and hopefully I’ll have an easier time making sense of it next time around.