• Director: Satyajit Ray
  • Writers: Satyajit Ray, based on the short story by Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay
  • Starring: Chhabi Biswas, Padma Devi, Pinaki Sen Gupta, Gangapada Bose, Tulsi Lahari, Kali Sarkar, Ustad Waheed Khan, Roshan Kumari, and Begum Akhtar
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#20), shown at Moscow International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Of those directors who have achieved fairly universal international acclaim over the years, perhaps the most unlikely of the bunch was Satyajit Ray, a native of Kolkata, India, who was completely self-taught as a filmmaker. He was and remains the Indian director whose movies have received the most acclaim internationally. Starting with Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) in 1955, before which he had never used a movie camera, he won awards at the Cannes, Berlin, and Venice Film Festivals, the big three of the European festival circuit. His movies tend to be slow-moving by the standards of both the “Western” and India’s own national “Bollywood” film industries, but are beloved for the attention they pay to their characters and the small details of their cultures and lives. No less a film luminary than Akira Kurosawa listed Ray among his favorite directors, arguing that his movies are not “slow,” they “flow composedly, like a great river.” In 1992, only a few months before his death, Ray became the first Indian to receive an honorary Oscar, delivering a heartfelt acceptance speech via satellite from his hospital room.

Ray started out as a graphic designer and illustrator, working in advertising and on book covers, but even then movies were his passion. With a couple of like minded cinema lovers he started the Calcutta Cinema Club, which brought and showed dozens of international art movies to a place they otherwise would not have been shown. After, in the same year, seeing Vittorio di Sica’s seminal Ladri di Bicicletta and meeting French master Jean Renoir, he decided to try to make his own movies. His first two movies both dealt with life in rural Indian villages. For his third, Jalsaghar (The Music Room in English), he took on a subject many have thought to be heavily influenced by the films of Renoir: that of the fading, doomed decadence of the rich.

Jalsaghar is set in 1920s India, as the ancient order is in the midst of passing away. A rich zamindar (directly translated as “landlord,” though in this case basically a local king or nobleman), played by Ray favorite Chhabi Biswas, continues to live in his enormous, decaying mansion overlooking a river. The tone is set right from the opening scene, in which the lord lounges on his roof overlooking his overgrown estate. A servant brings him a hookah, from which he takes a long, slow puff. Then he quietly asks, “What month is it?” 

The movie is centered around three performances of Indian classical music and dance, which the lord gives at great expense to show off his elaborate “music room.” The lord, we see, is obsessed more with appearances and maintaining his family’s prestige than anything else, even, seemingly, the individual members of his family. After the first performance, his wife (Padma Devi) complains that he mortgaged all of her jewels to pay for it. His neighbor Mahim (Gangapuda Bose) is lower born, crude, and has bad taste, but has become successful as a tax collector and now has more money than the lord. He can occasionally hear faint music or even the sound of a generator (meaning the neighbor has electricity, a rarity in 1920s India) coming from next door.

The first performance is in celebration of a “thread cutting ceremony” (go with it) for the lord’s son (Pinaki Sen Gupta). The second comes after Mahim visits and invites the lord to his own music party, to which the lord coolly responds that he already has a party scheduled for that same date. Of course, he did not, as we realize looking at the servant standing behind Mahim (Tulsi Lahari), who is flabbergasted at this sudden expense. Though his wife and son are out of town, the lord orders them to return for the performance. It takes place in a thunderstorm, while a bizarre singer (the way his beard is cut makes him look like nothing so much as a muppet when he opens his mouth) warbles ominously. The lord stares at his drinking glass, where he sees an insect floating. Then a servant arrives carrying the body of his son. The boat carrying the lord’s son and wife up the river has sunk in the storm.

For the final performance, the lord uses the last of his money to “go out with a bang,” even outbidding Mahim for the services of a popular dancer (Roshan Kumari). When Mahim tries to tip the dancer himself, the lord stops him with his cane. It is the right of the host to tip in his own house, a right for which the lord uses the last of his gold. After the performance, the lord gets drunk while loudly toasting his ancestors, but sees a spider crawling on his own portrait, as the non-electric lights on his ornate chandelier gradually blow out.

Even at the time of this movie, Bollywood was dominated by these lavish musical productions that exist in this very specific state of unreality. What Ray does here is include these presentations of Indian classical music, but he does so in a way where we’re just watching them diagetically as performances. There’s no big production, we’re just sitting there and watching them the same way the characters are. It is sort of the anti-Bollywood movie. The whole thing is shot in this great location that really is this old zamindar palace in northeast India, which gives the movie sort of crazy production values that it would definitely not have otherwise. Later in Ray’s career, a movie critic asked him in an interview why he chose to incorporate more camera movement into his later films, to which he replied, “because then I had the money to buy the equipment I needed.” All of Jalsaghar is basically at this one location, it’s on a shoe-string without looking like it.

Roger Ebert, who also listed Ray among his favorite directors, pointed out that in some ways this movie is not so different from King Lear. Its main character gives up everything that actually matters because of his obsession with his own pride. There’s even a big central thunderstorm set piece. It has the added element of a world falling away outside of anything the lord might do or not do. At the time this movie is set, the zamindars are on their way out. The thing the lord is trying to save would not have been salvageable regardless of his actions.

Unlike many Bollywood movies (which are generally in Hindi), most of Ray’s movies are in his native Bengali language (he did make two movies in Hindi, for which he wrote the scripts in English and then had them translated). Unfortunately, the version available via Amazon that I watched has some very sketchy subtitles. They don’t quite keep up with the dialogue in many places, and in others they’re missing altogether. When the titles are there, they seem to be direct, literal translations that don’t always make sense in English. At one point, the lord turns to his servant and basically goes, “What do you mean?” (I think) but the subtitles read, “What said you?” That said, it’s not something where the enjoyment is in the particulars of the dialogue, and between the visuals and the subtitles that made sense I never felt lost. It may be a sign of a great filmmaker that all you need are the visuals, without explanations, and Ray certainly achieves that here. That said, get it together Amazon.

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