'Jalsaghar': A Profoundly Evocative Satyajit Ray Classic

12/02/2016 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Jalsaghar (aka The Music Room), directed by master Indian filmmaker Satyajiy Ray, presents the tale of the decline of a feudal lord in the pre-independence India. Based on a short story by Bangla writer Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, Jalsaghar stars veteran Bangla actor Chhabi Biswas in the lead role of Huzur Biswambhar Roy. Huzur is the last of Zamindars--a dying breed of landlords who once formed the very basis of the Indian Feudal System. Huzur's glory days are over but his sense of superiority remains intact. He lives in the past neither acknowledging the present nor anticipating the future. He continues to be a servant of his refined tastes even as his coffers are getting empty.

In Satyajit Ray's own words Jalsaghar deals with "a music loving Zamindar who refuses to change with the times and thereby meets his comeuppance."

In his glory days, Huzur was no less than an emperor and his music room was like his crown jewel. The most elite singers and performers from different parts of the country would come to Huzur's estate to perform in front of him and his esteemed guests. Huzur despises an ambitious commoner named Mahim Ganguly. Ganguly, having attained riches through moneylending and other modern-day businesses, competes with Huzur by organizing supreme musical extravaganzas even though the former has no real taste for music or art. In a desperate attempt to sustain his supremacy, Huzur overlooks his depleting monetary state and continues with his ostentatious musical fests. In Satyajit Ray's own words Jalsaghar deals with "a music loving Zamindar who refuses to change with the times and thereby meets his comeuppance."

The music of Jalsaghar is written by the Indian composer and sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan. Ray encouraged Khan to compose musical pieces that would gel well with the movie's dark and gloomy tone. The movie's melancholic musical composition and sombre art direction--the sublime use of mirrors and chandeliers--gives it a gothic feel in the vein of American Film-Noir films of the '40s and '50s. In addition to Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan's spine-chilling music, Jalasghar is immortalized by unforgettable performances from the legendary Indian Ghazal singer Begum Akhtar and the famous Kathak dancer Roshan Kumari. The other noteworthy performers include Ustad Bismallah Khan, Waheed Khan and Salamat Ali Khan.

Satyajit Ray's direction in Jalsaghar has the signature of a filmmaker working at the height of his powers. The aura of Ray's mise en scène is at its full display in all the sequences filmed inside the music room. Ray's camera captures everything with scalpel-like precision: be it the Indian landscape picturesquely captured in black and white or the interiors of Huzur's majestic palace. The credit also goes to Ray's cinematographer Subrata Mitra who meticulously complements Ray's artistic vision. In Jalsaghar, unlike Pather Panchali which offers a microscopic view of characters, Satyajit Ray keeps his characters at a distance from the audience. It is Chhabi Biswas' haunting portrayal of Huzur Biswambhar Roy that puts soul into the movie and makes it truly unforgettable. Biswas was one of Ray's most favorite actors and following his demise in 1962, Ray admitted that he stopped writing middle-aged roles that demanded a high degree of acting prowess.

Despite lacking the raw power and pristine charm of Pather Panchali, the intellectual appeal and poignant beauty of Jalsaghar makes it Ray's most evocative work. Like any great filmmaker, Ray used his films not only as a means to fulfill his artistic yearnings but also as a medium to highlight important social issues. Ray's multifaceted humanistic works often focused upon the cultural, religious and socio-economic ambiguities of the Indian middle class. In Jalsaghar, Ray highlights the perpetual conflict of tradition versus modernity while simultaneously examining the Indian caste system. Jalsaghar failed to do well at the Indian box-office but it received both critical and financial success in Europe as well as the US and helped Ray earn international reputation.

Ray's film serves to be a social commentary on the fast-changing state of affairs in the pre-independence India.

Jalsaghar can be savored in so many different ways. First, as a powerful character study of a man whose pompous lifestyle, rigid belief in landed nobility, and turgid opinions about pedigree and self-regard in a fast changing world drive him to utter ruination. Second, it can be looked upon as a tale of human obsession. Huzur's passion for music is so deep-rooted that it eventually consumes him. Third, Ray's film serves to be a social commentary on the fast-changing state of affairs in the pre-independence India. There is a beautiful sequence in Jalasaghar wherein the dust particles scattered by the movement of Ganguly's automobile seem to engulf Huzur's elephant--Ray's symbolism to demonstrate how the modern world was fast replacing the old one. Fourth, Jalsaghar can be studied as a treatise on the use of music in cinema. The movie is a great musical in which Ray pays homage to classical Indian art forms of music and dance.

Jalsaghar has several memorable sequences and one can talk at length about each one of them. But, the ones that deserve special mention are the movie's opening and closing sequences. Barring these two scenes, most of the film is presented in the form of flashbacks. Renowned film critic, the late Roger Ebert describes the opening scene of Jalsaghar as "one of the most evocative opening scenes ever filmed". The opening scene sets the tone of the movie. We are introduced to Huzur Biswambhar Roy and we see a man who is a mere shadow of what he would have been in his hay days. All that remains is his two loyal servants, the dilapidated palace, and his memories which both delight him and haunt him. We get glimpses of Huzur's memories in the form of sumptuous, almost hypnotic flashbacks.

Widely considered as Satyajit Ray's most evocative film, Jalsaghar serves as a great means to get acquainted with Ray's oeuvre.

The movie's final sequence has a nightmarish feel to it. Huzur has just got over with his final act in the music room. Huzur's pride, after having finally humbled his adversary Ganguly, is at its zenith as he toasts to his royal ancestry before finally standing in front of his own portrait. Like a proverbial megalomaniac, Huzur, for a fleeting moment, forgets about the doom that awaits him. But, slowly the candles began to fade away leaving Huzur in state of shock. While the servant tries to assure him that it's almost dawn and so he need not worry about the candles, Huzur sees it as the sign of his end. To the dismay of both his servants, Huzur mounts his horse and begins to ride it at a terrible pace only to lose his balance and get killed with his turban--the scepter of his pride--flying off his head in a grand operatic fashion.

Overall, Jalsaghar is a sublime work of cinema that, having stood the test of time for over five decades, continues to inspire the budding filmmakers as well as enthrall the audiences worldwide. Widely considered as Satyajit Ray's most evocative film, Jalsaghar serves as a great means to get acquainted with Ray's oeuvre. With its universal motifs, it is also the most accessible of all Ray films, especially for foreign viewers. Jalsaghar is not a movie that would woo a casual viewer but a patient viewer would be thoroughly rewarded. It is a deeply thought-provoking work of cinema that demands multiple viewings. Jalsaghar is a must watch for every student of cinema and for all Satyajit Ray fans as well as for those who appreciate intelligent cinema.

A version of this article was first published at A Potpourri of Vestiges.

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