Over the past few years, as the Criterion Collection’s monthly announcement of upcoming releases developed its own cult following among film fans, among the most consistent, and in some ways contentious, clamoring has been heard from those pushing for an authoritative release of films by Indian director Satyajit Ray. Most often, the appeal has been for his classic Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar), the films that started his career and earned him an enduring legacy among discerning Western cinephiles. The contention developed between those who saw the ongoing omission of films by Ray as evidence of Criterion’s supposed ethnocentrism as they limited their “series of important classic and contemporary films” primarily to American, European and Japanese titles, overlooking worthy candidates from Africa or other parts of Asia.
Those who rose to Criterion’s defense in such debates advanced the idea that perhaps the company was just waiting for the proper restoration work to be done, and that given the right set of circumstances, Satyajit Ray’s most famous films would indeed find themselves emblazoned with the big C, in editions befitting their artistic and historic significance. That theory appears to have received substantial confirmation, now that an early work of Ray’s, though not the Apu Trilogy, has been released by Criterion to what’s sure to be a steadily growing chorus of praise as the reviews pour in over the days and weeks ahead.
Knowing more about Ray by way of his reputation than by actually seeing much of his output (I have an old VHS tape of his first film, Pather Panchali, which is beautiful but only whets the appetite for a proper hi-def reissue), I’ve been particularly eager to sink into this new release ever since it was first hinted at through one of Criterion’s Facebook still image previews. The picture was a shot of an opulent old palace in the midst of breaking down, and now that I’ve seen The Music Room, I can understand why it was instantly recognizable to those who’d seen the movie previously. The structure itself plays a major part in the story, setting the atmosphere and serving to illustrate the film’s major themes, of an era coming to an end and an ancient way of life, even the basic assumptions of an entire civilization, on the verge of tumultuous upheaval… and how all that plays out in the life of one pivotal individual.
The individual is a man, Biswambhar Roy, lord of a dwindling estate who carries the title “zamindar,” something along the lines of a lord or a baron, to use the language of more familiar aristocratic orders. The story takes place in the 1920s, still two decades or so before India had finally liberated out from under British colonial rule, but already well underway from transitioning away from the feudalistic underpinnings that gave zamindars like Roy their wealth and prestige. Biswambhar’s material fortunes are deteriorating even faster than the palatial spread is crumbling out from beneath him, literally, as a nearby river has already washed away large chunks of his estate. The zamindar’s response to this inevitable decline and fall is to continuously lose himself in his chosen pastime, the appreciation of fine Indian classical music. And he comes from a caste where simply putting on a record and slipping away into the melody will never do. For him, the proper way to feel music’s transport is to assemble a group of guests, hire the finest players he knows of, and pay whatever price they charge, even if that means hocking the family jewels in order to pay for the festivities.
Of course the threat of financial ruin and his injudicious pursuit of aesthetic pleasures to the neglect of more urgent needs creates some tension in the household, most notably with his wife, a practical minded woman and mother of the couple’s only child, Khoka a son destined to inherit whatever remains of his once-illustrious lineage. Roy’s servant also has to endure his own share of stress as he sees the master putting on airs he can no longer afford, but dares not speak up in opposition due to the traditions of respect and unquestioning obedience he observes. The zamindar, though rich, idle and badly deluded, remains a sympathetic character in the eyes of most viewers, because he is essentially so child-like and innocent in the way he holds on to his simple pleasures, obtained at what turns out to be such a heavy price.
Chhabi Bisawas, the actor who plays Roy, was a beloved star in Indian cinema and he very much looks the part of a privileged nobleman whose setbacks in life gradually wear him down to the point of personal realization and emergence from the delusion that has, for all his refined tastes, clouded his vision and blocked his ears over the course of a lifetime. His performance connected powerfully with me, serving up a lesson worth reflecting on as I recognize in myself a guy who can get lost in my own preoccupations, sometimes to the neglect of people around me.
Even if one is a relative novice to Indian culture or the raga as a musical form, The Music Room is a superb introduction to the genre. Satyajit Ray possessed impeccable tastes in music, as we learn from the bountiful supplements on this Blu-ray and DVD, and for this particular film, he sought out the services of several distinct masters of their respective genres, including male and female vocalists, instrumentalists and a dancer who’s mesmerizing gestures and footwork provide a magnificent concluding segment of the film’s three main musical set pieces. The soundtrack is rich and quite lovely even as background music – I had it on the other night just for the sonic atmospherics while we were playing some games as a family.
Likewise, the package that Criterion put together for this release functions effectively as an introductory course on the life and career of Satyajit Ray himself. A feature length documentary, roundtable discussions of Ray in dialog with a critic and a fellow director herald from the early 1980s, and a pair of interviews, including one with Mira Nair (whose Monsoon Wedding preceded this one as the first Indian film in the Criterion Collection), offer a contemporary assessment of Ray’s work. The booklet provides ample insights into the making of the film, and needless to say, the image quality and transfer are brilliantly clear, though it’s still apparent that this is an older film that hasn’t received the most meticulous care over the decades. The liner notes offer some helpful background information about the on-going restoration work of all of Ray’s films, and as it turns out, The Music Room was among the very first selections that this project took on. The hint that more may be on the way leads to the tantalizing prospect that the Apu Trilogy will find its eventual release, hopefully sooner rather than later. Here’s hoping that The Music Room finds the appreciative audience it deserves. Load up your hookah, stack up your favorite lounging pillows, have a few friends over, lay back to enjoy the music… let it transport you where it will.