Satyajit Ray made The Music Room (1958) between the second and third instalments of his beloved Apu Trilogy (1955, 56, 59), the films that launched the great Bengali director’s career and convinced the world—if not quite the Indian public—that Indian movies could occasionally stray from the dictates of the flamboyant song and dance cinema that we instantly associate with “Bollywood” to this day. With The Music Room, Ray in fact did incorporate musical performance into his work, but rather than doing so in the old stop-everything-and-sing fashion, he made the music integral to the story and texture of the film, which turns out to be the very opposite of baroque-bombastic melodrama. This is a sombre, meditative, crepuscular film, about pleasure, devastation, and aristocracy in slow decline. Its gorgeous musical performances are given plenty of space to luxuriate, but they entrance rather than excite the listener. I’m not sure I’ve seen—or heard—anything quite like The Music Room, and once it was over I’d felt like I’d woken from a dream. The film is now available on blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.
Opening credits appear over an image of a hovering chandelier which looms closer and closer, until we cut to an arresting close-up of Biswambhar Roy (the great Chhabi Biswas), a middle-aged zamindar, or land-owning nobleman, who sits in a big chair on the roof of his crumbling palace, which stands isolated in a vast, hazy landscape that feels like it’s a world away from anyplace. Its flat surroundings reveal vestiges of a regal past: a lone elephant, a starved horse, traces of a road now seldom used, the skeleton of a ship. The Music Room takes place entirely within this landscape; you get to feeling like Roy is somehow sequestered here, in this place where tragedy befalls him during the film’s extensive flashback; and when he attempts to leave it, it’s as though some force buried in the earth has determined to keep him there. Throughout, Ray’s camera explores this landscape, the palace, and everything in it with steady, mesmerizing grace. This is a film founded in music, but also in magisterial spaces, from a sky full of lightning to the immense high ceilings of the titular room to the surface of a glass of tea from which an insect portentously struggles to escape.
It’s no slight on The Music Room to say that it might lull you asleep if you watch it when you’re tired—it’s literally spellbinding. The musical sections, in which gifted musicians perform in Roy’s music room (even when the expense of having them perform threatens to exhaust his dwindling funds) are deliciously drowsy: dudes lying around in their pyjamas on carpets and big pillows, smoking hookah pipes while sitars and tablas vibrate and patter, singers sing of love and desire, and dancers, their legs strewn with bells, move in seductive rhythms that only add to the warm complexity of the music. And it’s a good thing too, that the music and atmospheres of The Music Room so effortlessly carry the picture, because (and here’s my only complaint about the disc) with the white subtitles on the black-and-white images I couldn’t read half of the dialogue. Movies have been around for over a century now; they’ve seen advances in sound, colour and depth that the mediums forefathers could never have imagined. But we still haven’t figured out how to make subtitles legible.