Satyajit Ray had already made a name for himself with the first two Apu films by the time he decided to explore another avenue in the form of Jalsaghar, or The Music Room. Really, the films are very nearly opposites, but a look underneath at the wires that make up this film will quickly give away the fact that the same director is behind this as the Apu trilogy. Where Apu’s world is one of poverty and the ceaseless struggle to get by, Jalsaghar takes place in a world of opulence and decadence, where anything can be had on a whim and a prayer. That the muddy and undeveloped world of little Apu takes place in the same country as this film does can speak enough for itself, but Ray has more he wants to say with this one; another whole set of circumstances and values he wants to explore.
The film, and I use the term used by Wikipedia, is about the fall of a zamindar, or a very well-off landowner, living in Bengal. Roy, true to his riches, enjoys indulging in his interests and pastimes, which are usually in the form of musical events and galas held in his palace. Meanwhile, the world around him changes, while he chooses to stay in his old ways; the zamindar system of land leasing is being eliminated by the government, and newcomers with well-earned riches begin to rise and challenge his superiority in his lifestyle. There’s more to the film than that, but that’s enough to hopefully give you an idea of what the film explores, since it spends an awful lot of its time exploring, as opposed to telling a story. Probably the whole first hour or so features no advancements in the plot; it is there just to set up the world and explore the main character as he lives his life, until the coming encroachment of his new neighbor begins to whittle away at his established status and he forces himself to try and match the up-and-comer. A lot of this is thanks to the splendid performance by Chhabi Biswas, who imbues the central zamindar with an array of emotions and reactions, which forms the main draw of the film. The other draw would be the cinematography, which like the final Apu film seems to be a step above and beyond the meager days of Pather Panchali, but still rooted in the country’s culture of independent filmmaking. Generally, I like the style of Ray’s films. The film itself seems to be only exposed as much as they could’ve at the time, which wasn’t much, so the images appear to be carved out of the shadows, rather than formed from the shaping of light. It’s an interesting counter-point to the general “light everything” mentality that had mainstream Hollywood in its grip around the same era. I also noticed a good deal more movement of the camera, suggesting that Ray and his cinematographer Subrata Mitra were really starting to get a handle on the various cinematic techniques at their disposal.
If the somewhat nondescript plot summary up there didn’t give you a hint as to the type of film that Jalsaghar is, I’ll elaborate further; this is not the type of film to watch if you’re looking for a story or straight narrative. This is an exploration of a culture, and of a man living in that culture when the culture itself begins to fall down around him. To some, this will make for fascinating viewing, but for others, it will be a doldrum of a film, since there’s very little of consequence that happens. In general, I liked this one, but it was really only when I figured out what kind of a film it was going to be that I was able to sit down and experience it the right way. Hopefully, this little review will be enough to get you on the right path, should you wish to see this one yourself. It is quite the rewarding picture if you’re in the right mindset for it.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10