Friday 12 May 2017

At the BFI: "The Music Room/Jalsaghar"

If you ever wanted to get some sense of just how Western-friendly the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray was, then The Music Room - one of his foremost achievements - would be a fine starting point. When Ray decided to structure a film around music, it wasn't to be the brash song-and-dances of Bollywood, but something more classical and stately - and the scenario framing it would be altogether Shakespearian: a tale of two houses, one built on sand, the other, more humbly, on rock. The first plays home to a profligate landowner, Huzur Roy (Chhabi Biswas), who remains thoroughly condescending to his servants and tenants even as he's obliged to sell off his remaining possessions. (Shades of Charles Foster Kane, perhaps.) In the second, there lives a nouveau riche wheeler-dealer, Ganguly (Gangapada Basu), representative of the "new" India, in that he's invested in a truck where his neighbour has only elephants and horses to go on, and has an electric generator, where his richer neighbour has to watch the candles in his lavish chandeliers die out. It's the music that serves as an organising principle, however, opening up what might otherwise have been a stuffy chamber piece. Both men are prone to throwing concerts to express (and flaunt) their wealth, refinement and philanthropic urges; yet their fortunes will wax and wane over time. Things change, goes the moral.

That these days of splendour are viewed in flashback by the ageing landowner, shuffling round his empty - and, more crucially, newly quiet - bolthole lends the storytelling an extra layer of melancholy that comes from Proust and goes to Merchant-Ivory and points beyond. (Watched in a rare TV outing, in the austerity-hit Britain of 2013, it looked as resonant as ever: here's a film that gives us pause to contemplate, and perhaps rue, that in life we come to squander.) Where Ray's breakthrough films, the Apu trilogy, were innately personal endeavours, The Music Room may be even more impressive for the manner in which the filmmaker strives to venture outside himself, and to generate sympathy for a dying class, a vanished way of life, much as Renoir had done with La Règle du Jeu twenty years before: it even affords the landowner a triumph of sorts with the belated recognition that culture costs nothing, and a final cavalry charge. It's a small subject - short story-like in scale - yet throughout Ray works very hard to find the most evocative sounds to match or counterpoint his images of decay and disrepair, the camera slowly, quietly pushing in on characters in empty rooms who had it all, blew it, and can now only hear the ring of solitude, failure, and the grave in every echoing, once-carpeted footstep.

The Music Room screens in NFT2 tomorrow at 3.45pm, and again on Thu 18 at 8.40pm.  

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