Judge Clark Douglas's music room consists of a pan flute and some worn-out Electric Light Orchestra records.
One of Satyajit Ray's defining works.
"The master of the house reserves the right to give the first gift."
Facts of the Case
This is the story of Biswanghar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), an aging aristocrat whose wealth is all but gone. Once upon a time, he was fabulously rich, was happily married and was a father to a young boy. Now, all of that is gone. The Music Room details how Biswanghar came from there to here, using a series of three lavish musical performances (set within the confines of Biswanghar's ornate music room) as a backdrop for the drama that unfolds.
After a striking opening credits sequence, The Music Room introduces its main character in striking fashion. Biswanghar Roy is sitting on the terrace of his run-down mansion; a figure of opulence surrounded by ruins. Biswanghar's servant brings him a hookah, which the reflective Lord puffs meditatively while looking into the distance. "What month is it?" he asks. He is a man more than a little disconnected from reality, which is what permits him to continue going about his life as if he hasn't lost one bit of his fortune. The furniture is gone, most of the jewelry has been sold and the estate generally seems to be falling apart, but Biswanghar has kept his music room entirely intact (one is reminded of a scene in Todd Hayne's adaptation of Mildred Pierce, in which a once-wealthy character can only afford to supply one room in his mansion with prominent suggestions of wealth).
For years, Biswanghar has been immensely jealous of his neighbor Mahim Gangulia (Gangapada Bose), a lower-caste businessman who has been accumulating considerable wealth at a rapid rate. Mahim isn't particularly refined and doesn't carry himself with the measured dignity of a traditional Lord, but the fact of the matter is that his estate is rising while Biswanghar's is falling apart. Rather than accepting this fact and simply living his life, Biswanghar chooses to flaunt his supposed wealth in an attempt to prevent Mahim from feeling superior. When Mahim invites Biswanghar over for a party, Biswanghar casually declares that he is already throwing a party on that same date. The servants are nervous to hear this declaration, as they know that Biswanghar can't really afford to throw a party. Even so, the Lord's vanity demands that he carry through with this half-baked plan.
The Music Room spends a great deal of its running time offering elaborate stagings of traditional Indian music, but it is unlike any other Indian musicals of the era. While most Indian films of the 1950s relied on melodrama, exaggerated acting and spontaneous musical numbers, Satyajit Ray's gentle tale works in musical sequences in an entirely organic manner and offers performances built on understated naturalism. Even the film's one moment of genuine melodrama (which takes place at the very end) feels like an entirely appropriate, believable resolution to the story that Ray has been telling.
The fascinating thing about the musical interludes is the manner in which Ray quietly slips bits of character development into the mix. In the first sequence (a coming-of-age celebration for Biswanghar's son), we witness the somewhat crass, modern Mahim fidgeting uncomfortably during what he regards as a dull presentation of Indian classical music. In the second, we watch the nervous behavior of the servants and the musicians, who know they are at an event that really shouldn't have been organized to begin with. In the third, we watch Biswanghar bask in his momentary victory, as he throws the last shreds of his wealth into a final concert organized for the specific purpose of permitting Biswanghar to show up Mahim in a somewhat petty, childish manner.
The tale may sound harsh, but The Music Room is actually a very affectionate tale that regards its struggling aristocrat with a good deal of affection. We know he is doomed to allow his pride to take him to the lowest of lows, and we pity him because we know that he must either increase his levels of self-delusion or face the horrors of reality at some point. The closing moments of the film are haunting, beginning with a brilliant close-up of a spider and lurching madly to the finish line from there.
The Music Room arrives on Blu-ray sporting a handsome 1080p/Full Frame transfer. While it seems that the original print was damaged beyond repair in some spots (there's a constant stream of white lines and scratches throughout), Criterion has otherwise delivered a transfer that offers superb detail, rich contrast and impressive depth. The visual allusions Ray offers are such an important part of the film, and they can finally be fully appreciated with this new HD release. Audio is a little less spectacular, as some of the original score pieces sound a little pinched and distorted at times. The on-camera musical performances tend to be rather excellent, though. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout. Supplements include an impressive 1984 documentary on Ray, new interviews with Ray biographer Andrew Robinson and Monsoon Wedding director Mira Nair and an excerpt from a 1981 French television program featuring Ray, director Claude Sautet and critic Michael Ciment. You also get a booklet featuring an essay by Philip Kemp, an essay by Ray and an interview with Ray.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Those who dislike Indian music may grow discontent with the film, as lengthy stretches are devoted to concert performances. While there are crucial pieces of character development tucked within these scenes, it's easy to see how some viewers might feel the film simply grinding to a halt for a while until the performances have concluded.
The Music Room remains one of Satyajit Ray's best films and a surprisingly tender portrait of societal change. Criterion's Blu-ray release is a winner.
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