Film Fest: Jalgashar (The Music Room, 1958)

I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:14

Three thousand years ago, at the height of his power, King Solomon of Israel uttered these poignant words as he reflected on the futility of chasing earthly achievements. This theme has been a grist for philosophers and theologians ever since. It comes as no surprise that hedonism is also a recurring theme in films.  Jalgashar (The Music Room), a film written and directed by the acclaimed film-maker, Satyajit Ray is one such example.

Ray is best known for his “Apu” trilogy which chronicles the life of a poor Bengali villager from childhood to adulthood. These films introduced Indian art cinema to a world that previously was familiar only with the fantasy and spectacle of Bollywood musicals. Through his trilogy, Ray revealed a different India, the life in the village, ravaged by famine, drought and poverty. “Apu” was a tour de force, establishing Ray’s reputation as a film maker of the highest artistic calibre.

The Music Room tells the story of a fading lord, Huzur Roy in the 1920s. Roy is played with sad-eye gravity by one of Ray’s favourite actor, Chhabi Biswas. Roy’s power and fortune have slowly faded away to nothing. His palace is crumbling, and one by one, his servants have left. He spends his days sitting on the roof in silent reveries of his past glory, looking out on a barren landscape that is symbolic of his decline. Adding salt to injury is Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Basu), a money lender, one whose crass manners do not betray his rising power and status. Ganguly represents all that Roy has lost. When Ganguly announces that he is going to hold a concert, Roy wants to hold one too on the same night, pitting old money against new. Roy reminisces about his beloved music room in better times, and is determined to relive those days even though this will wipe out his treasury completely. It is his last chance to live as he was accustomed to doing, and to keep his inevitable end at bay for one last night of music and pleasure.

The film’s atmosphere of hedonism and decay is intoxicating. We feel the end of Roy’s world viscerally and yet, like him, we wish impossibly that it will not end. The close observation and careful evocation of time and place that is characteristic of Satyajit Ray’s neo-realist films is on full display here. The Music Room is a sensual delight and a melancholic statement rolled into one essential masterpiece of Indian cinema.

Follow the main story of Jalgashar with this five-part extract (32 mins)

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