Music and dance, the cornerstones of Indian film, are present in Satyajit Ray’s fourth feature, 1959’s The Music Room, but the showcase is of a different sort than the usual incorporation of music into the national cinema. Ray’s use of the artforms is seamlessly interwoven into the film, made an integral part of the narrative and not merely a thrilling departure. Music is also a harbinger in this film, foreshadowing dire events and even moving the action backwards to cover more dark occurrences. Even at its most exciting, the music here always signals something terrible on the horizon.
The foundations of Ray’s career lie in his assistance of Jean Renoir when the latter came to India to shoot The River, and it’s fitting that Ray’s own work should so strongly recall the humanism of France’s greatest director. Though his camerawork is not nearly as intricate or technical as Renoir’s, Ray uses the frame to glide around his characters, always moving to get at their humanity. So elegant is his work that he moves into a 40-minute flashback imperceptibly, transitioning from chilling shots of a zamindar, an aristocratic landlord, stoically overlooking his dwindling land back a few years to happier times that quickly take a turn for the worse.
That landlord is Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), a kind, art-loving man who nevertheless does not pay sufficient attention to rising flood waters that slowly erode his territory as he faces the dual threat of encroaching modernity. He prefers to spend time in his music room, a gargantuan parlor filled with looming portraits of ancestors and a giant mirror, narcissistic symbols of past lineage and present self-perception. Overhead swings a chandelier, a beautiful, lavish mass of glass so huge that it rises over all even when on the ground as servants change out the candles, a scale-establishing shot that simultaneously reveals the obsolescence of such a lavish ornament.
Like all aristocrats, Roy survives more on reputation and lineage than actual capital, and when Ganguli, the son of a deceased moneylender, returns to take over his father’s estate, the young man’s cockiness and tangible wealth prompts him to build his own, more modern music room to compete with the zamindar. As Roy sits in his candle-lit palace with fan-wafting servants, he hears a slight buzzing from afar, revealed to be the sound of Ganguli’s new generator. Aware that he must preserve his respect, Roy spends money he doesn’t have to throw a lavish party in his music room, even staying behind to engage in his new rivalry while his wife and son, a young musician-in-training whose passion has all of his father’s charms without the consuming side-effects, go away on a trip.
Thus, Ray positions his film as a study of tradition and modernity, but his intent focus on Roy and his capacity to depict the contradictions of humanity complicate the well-worn subject matter. When Ganguli stops by in the present to mock the broken Roy, he notes with disdain that when the servants ride into the local village on Roy’s old, worn out elephant, throngs crowd around it, but when Ganguli himself drives by in a car, the same people throw stones, a reaction against the modernity that will at least provide the possibility for social mobility. Roy’s own tradition is not particularly noble in a moral sense, and he clings to it simply because he knows he has no place in a modern society, which Ray does not suggest is a bad thing.
Nevertheless, Ray does not outright condemn the landlord: his camera arcs around the music room to make painfully clear its gaudiness, but the director always comes back to settle on Roy’s face, transfixed by his performers and awestruck by the power of music. He may use the room primarily to keep up appearances, but he also genuinely loves his choice of entertainment. Compare the look of utter focus on his face as he listens to the first performance in the music room to Ganguli’s: the younger man fidgets in the old-fashioned room, rubbing his drinking glass for its moisture as he lightly huffs in the stuffy room, clearly anxious to get back to more modern, electric comforts. Roy places all of his anxiety over changing times onto Ganguli, who actually does not represent radical change, at least not as far as the general peasantry is concerned: they will simply go from fealty to an aristocratic bloodline to wage slavery for a capitalist buffoon.
But it’s that fear of obsolescence that pokes through in the various moments of foreboding captured in Ray’s lens: as the second music room performer, a khyal singer, moves deftly through technical lines of warbling, wind picks up around the estate as the boat carrying Roy’s wife and child heads for home. At last, the landlord notices a fly drowning in his drink, the foreshadowing preceding a loss of line far more tangible than the vague notions of station and respect to which Roy erstwhile clung.
Once the film returns to the present day and moves back inside the palace we explored only in flashback, the changes to the place become clear. The music room, boarded up after that fateful night, is overgrown with cobwebs, that chandelier no longer so brilliant under layers of dust. And beside the vast portraits of proud ancestors are ascetic images of Roy’s wife and child, faces floating in heavenly white space that mocks the tormented man. A half-mad Roy gets goaded into one last concert by a mocking Ganguli, by this point so nearly an embodiment of capitalist greed and disregard that only Ray’s gift for gentle humanity keeps him from becoming a cheap stereotype. As Ganguli tears him down gaily, Roy sits quietly and takes it, and though he amusingly cuts short the young man’s triumphant walk out by reminding him to drink his sherbet, the old landlord has clearly been shaken.
The sense of dread that permeated the previous musical performance infects the final one. The artist, a sensual, energetic kathak dancer, is so vibrant Ray must adjust his previous style to capture it. Rather than the same graceful arcs around the room, he primarily roots the camera in long shot, zooming in as Roy falls under the spell of music once more and tilting and panning with the dancer’s movements. When Ray does cut to show Roy’s face, it makes the catharsis on his face all the more powerful for elongating the shots of the dance. We also see that as this passionate dance is bringing out Roy’s pain, Ganguli is impressed but more turned on than anything, his shallowness at its most evident as Roy reaches new depths. After everyone leaves, a drunken Roy contemplates the feelings awoken in him as he sarcastically toasts his ancestors and himself, suddenly dipping into terror when he sees the candles of the chandelier burning out.
The finale of The Music Room is shocking, suggestive, but not symbolic in an empty way. That reflects the film itself, which uses heavily symbolic imagery but always in such a way that whatever meaning we assign it is an outgrowth of Roy’s paranoia. For all the implications of Roy’s futile, bourgeois “war” with the modernizing influence that is coming to enslave the common people through a different social stratification, the tragedy of his demise is less thematically resonant than personally affecting. Ray’s ability to make each character a type and then ignore that type altogether is breathtaking; I cannot recall a film that hinged more crucially on symbolism that did not care one iota for its symbolism. Or at least, I can’t think of a film that cared so little for all that and still put so much energy and devotion and understanding into everything and everyone in the frame. As an introduction to the work of Satyajit Ray, The Music Room has me scrambling to explore this beautiful, inexplicable artist further.