The Music Room (The Criterion Collection) Review

Many Americans associate Indian cinema with the 3-hour Bollywood epics bursting at the seams with bright, lavish colors and catchy musical numbers, and that’s mostly because the majority of Indian films that make it stateside fall into this category. India has another film tradition though, one that goes a ways back and has much more introspective stories focused on social issues and matters of the human character. In that field, Satyajit Ray was revered for his portrayal of Indian culture and his ability to frame it in such a true fashion that not only were the visuals deeply rooted in the country’s heritage, but the messages and themes of his films reflected core issues of both the poor and wealthy classes alike. In The Music Room, Ray tells the story of a man ruined by his nostalgic indulgences, and yet he does so in such a way that by the film’s end, you understand where his obsession originates: his soul’s yearning for the preservation of his golden youth and the effect music has on a human being.

The estate of Huzur Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), a revered landlord in an age where his kind are few and far between, has seen better days. No longer the socialite he once was, Biswambhar rarely travels outside his own abode to engage in the events of his peers and relatives. One day, in a passive act of spite, Biswambhar decides to hold a concert in his music room that hasn’t seen much activity as of late. The musical performance awakens a longing for his youth and he continues to indulge in the private concerts even as his wealth plummets and his wife objects to the selling of their prized jewels. Eventually Biswambhar’s desire to be renowned for his music room causes him to endanger the things he loves most, but even that can’t make him forget the ecstasy the music brings him.

Of the musical numbers appearing in the film, the last, featuring Krishnabai dancing along, firmly cements the audience’s understanding of Biswambhar’s obsession that forces him to make rash decisions and drags him closer and closer to bankruptcy. Whereas the other musical displays up to that point felt like the ill-fated attempts of an old man to regain the exhilaration of his glory days, the final act is a pinnacle of performance unto itself. Ray captures the magic of the final indulgence in such a plain way that the music and dancing have no choice but to gain your respect on their own merit, and they do. Consequently, the film closes on a feeling of deep comprehension, the audience finally aware of that divine spark that fueled Biswambhar’s sudden flights of spending even when his servant’s made it perfectly clear just how quickly his fortunes dwindled. The servants are aware of his passion, but they don’t quite understand it, even as they facilitate it. The audience on the other hand, finally receives the invitation to see it the way Biswambhar does and his willingness to forsake the riches he’s earned in lieu of the art form he loves makes sense.

Even as The Music Room serves as the perfect vehicle for Satyajit Ray’s message of lost tradition in the face of modern times, it’s not without a discordant note. Chhabi Biswas can’t hide his age as well as the film’s transitions would like. Instead of using a younger actor to portray Biswambhar in the earlier years, Ray opted to plaster Biswas’s face with makeup to make him look 30 years younger, and it just doesn’t work and consequently it makes the flashbacks harder to comprehend. At the time it was filmed, Biswas was 59 years old and attempting to play a 30-year-old. It throws off the film’s sense of chronological progression and takes you out of the film, distracting you during the musical numbers that are supposed to serve as the establishment of his obsession to relive his youth through music. Biswas’s performance has no issue, it’s just the unrealistic expectation that a 60-year-old man could convincingly play one half his age.

Obviously the film has aged considerably since 1959, but the restoration efforts of the Academy Film Archives have made The Music Room worthy of high-definition presentation. There are still moments where the lighting is almost too dark to perceive what’s on screen, but the AFA’s work is fantastic. It’s also worth noting that the subtitles for The Music Room have been updated to more accurately reflect the original Hindi script.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

In the case of the supplementary essay by Philip Kemp (“Distant Music) and the video interview with Director Mira Nair (The Namesake), I would have to recommend you not engage either until after seeing the film and processing it so that you have your own opinions first. Both Kemp and Nair have a bit to say about the film, and both have insightful opinions, but they can pollute your own train of thought if consumed too early. Contrarily, I’d recommend reading the essay by Satyajit Ray (“Winding Route to a Music Room”) and the interview with him that appear in the booklet within the case before watching so you have a firm grasp for the significance of some of the musical performances he captured on film. Also in the booklet is a piece on the restoration of the film.

On the disc, the most interesting extra comes in the form of the feature-length documentary Satyajit Ray which follows Ray’s career from start to finish with a series of interviews, pictures, film clips, and more. If you finish the film with even a fleeting appreciation for what Ray created in The Music Room, then the documentary will prove interesting and it’s well-made. The clip from a 1981 roundtable with Ray, director Claude Sautet, and film critic Michel Ciment holds less interest but has a few nuggets of insight into Ray hidden within some of his rambling responses. Finally, an interview with Andrew Robinson, a Ray biographer, serves as a severely abridged version of the documentary as it’s focused mostly on The Music Room, but should be enough for those only interest in cursory exploration of Ray’s works after watching the feature.

"The Music Room (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale July 19, 2011 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by Satyajit Ray. Written by Satyajit Ray, Tarashankar Banerjee. Starring Chhabi Biswas, Padmadevi, Pinaki Sengupta.

Jul
28
2011
Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.

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