Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Jalsaghar (1958)

Jalsaghar (Satyajit Ray, 1958)
English Title: The Music Room

Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar (The Music Room) is bookended by an image of an ornate chandelier swinging against a black background. The same chandelier is the centerpiece of the jalsaghar (or concert room) of landlord Huzur Bizwambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas). It's a beautiful room --- large portraits of Huzur's ancestors adorn the wall; a large mirror backdrops each musical performance; majestic pillars serve as both pointers to the palatial status of Huzul's mansion and as sturdy backbones of the manor. It's truly a magnificent room, but there's an air of decay, of a fading glory to it. It's the same look that pervades the entire Roy mansion --- the lone imposing figure in a vast field of grass and crops but its walls are deteriorating; its master quickly fading along with the extravagance of the past.

Huzur is first shown as a weak, almost invalid man. He hears distant music and asks his loyal servant as to where such music comes from; Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Basu) is celebrating his son's initiation. He wonders if he was invited; he was, but not personally. It's a brilliant opening scene. Ray instantly captures the lost splendor as Huzur is depicted as someone who seems to have just awoken from a long slumber; surprised as to how the world has changed and how he has completely lost touch with life. Ray's cinematographer Subrata Mitra showcases how little Huzur is against his mansion (he is seen in the rooftop) and the lands he presumably owns (there's a sense of vastness of empty and fallow land from the viewpoint of Huzur's rooftop). More importantly, Ray focuses on Huzur's facial features; Chhabi Biswas' eyes are rightfully deep and hurt and his face's lines evoke a forced aging.

And aged he has, at least after three years from the moment he rides his favorite horse home; and being greeted by his servants announcing a visitor --- Mahim, who was then an enterprising businessman asking a favor from the landowner. The Huzur we first see atop his mansion and the Huzur from the flashback are almost two entirely different personas; the former is weak and detached from the world while the latter celebrates life. He throws a concert to celebrate his own son's coming-of-age. Ray wades his camera from the musicians to the audience; Huzur in absolute satisfaction; nouveau rich Mahim uncomfortably getting used to classical Hindustani music. Huzur's pragmatic wife is clearly disappointed as her jewels were mortgaged to fund the party. The Roy family's coffers are thinning; the rivers are diminishing their estate; yet they remain to be their community's remaining aristocrat with a lifestyle that became their opium or addiction.

The second concert of Huzur, funded wastefully from the few remaining jewelry of his wife and a mere afterthought by Huzur to top Mahim's house blessing, showcases a traditional Hindustani singer whose vocal prowess seems to match the atmospheric dread that will meet Huzur's wife and son's untimely demise. It's a powerful sequence; Ray lands his camera to the little indications of trouble (the uncomfortable swinging of the grand chandelier, the insect swimming in the expensive wine) before lashing out in an explicitly dramatic turn-of-events (Ray's powerful tableau of Huzur grasping desperately for his son's dead body).

The third concert, funded from the last few coins of a deadened estate, features a performer dancing to the beat of drums. The milieu has changed; Mahim has crossed-over to modernity (he arrives by automobile and has more than enough reasons to treat the faded aristocrat with much less reverence) and perhaps thinks that the modern age brings with it a complete erasure of the fact that he is merely a usurer's son; Huzur's jalsaghar is less grand with less servants and furnishings (Mahim scoffs at Huzur's last hurrah, complaining at the lack of fanners to ease the heat and humidity). The performance upstages all the deterioration, the faded glories, and the lingering poverty that surrounds Huzur, and in his final determination of class, reprimands Mahim in tipping the excellent dancer before the host. He throws his family's final fortune signalling the belated end of the landowning Roy clan.

In Ray's closing sequence, Huzur sees and fears the lights of his jalsaghar being doused (among other signals of his demise; a spider roaming in his portrait, his drunken ode to the blood (which is the lone reminder of his majesty) that flows in his veins and his lineage) before being reminded by his servant that it is dawn. He rides his horse before being thrown to his death. It's an entirely tragic affair and despite all of Huzur's flaws and his impracticality, there's a lingering grace in Ray's convicted depiction of the landowning class (Ray is himself a descendant of a long line of landowners). Huzur's passing is treated with a reverent mourning, mostly by his loyal servants as well as the film's viewers who are drawn to the aristocrat's addicted reliance on a faded and forgotten glory, not out of characteristic imperfection but of a misguided placing by a class-ed society entering the age of equal opportunities. Like the chandelier swinging in the opening and ending of Jalsaghar (as well as that stormy night of Huzur's family members' deaths), a breeze of change is more than felt, set in a background of indiscernible darkness.


gopalanravindran said...

Ray succeeds well in Jalsaghar not because of the centrality of the music room, but also because of the die-hard benefactor of the music room,Huzur Biswambhar Roy. He is as much a protogonist of the fading glory of the feudal times as the music room and the performers and rasikas of the jalsas.

Thanks for the good post.When time permits visit my blog on Tamil cinema at www.subalterncinema.com/ravi

Oggs Cruz said...


Your site is great. I must admit that I'm not very well-acquainted with Tamil cinema, but thanks to your site, I can start learning.

yves said...

I have been forwarded to your site thanks to Jalsaghar: I appreciated your way of looking at the opposition between Roy and Ganguli in terms of technological development, but I wonder if you'd agree with me that their competition is also more spiritual, and expresses itself also in terms of life-forces?
cheers, yves