Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Indian Film Classics III: Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958) Bengali

In "Jalsaghar", Satyajit Ray portrays a character with whom it is almost impossible to sympathize with and relate to. How much can you relate to an obscenely-rich guy (a zamindar) who has it all, and loses everything almost singlehandedly through pride, delusion and sheer stupidity (when millions around him are struggling for their daily bread). Who is completely oblivious of the change in the world around him - some might call him a dinosaur who deserves to be extinct. You don't meet such characters in your life every day -how do you expect to relate to him. But, by the end of the movie, Ray left me rooting for the character so much, that I wanted to get into the frame, and slap the zamindar guy and tell him to come back to reality, and by the very end of the movie, I was empathizing with him - and seeing the way he is, understood his flaws and what made him happy and why he is acting so knuckle-headedly.

He is a dinosaur, no question. But he is also human. It is easy to vilify such a character, but if you look close enough, or if you have a director like Ray who would do that for you, you see the frailty behind the facade and the obvious- the fatal weaknesses, the pains, the joys, the pleasures. From a social perspective, there is nothing much to like in him - he is a rich guy who think he is entitled to much more than he has, who couldn't care less about the people around him, and strongly believes that since he is born into a privileged class he is better than others and at the best tolerates other people. Personally also, he is rude to visitors, and treats them according to the class they belong to. If you put your socio-political cap on, you would despise such characters - at least I would. But, if you look at him as an individual, possibly as someone who would live in your neighborhood…then it is a different story.

Bishwambhar Roy(Chaabi Biswas) is a zamindar (read an ultra rich landowner apparently without much else to do other than enjoy life, throw parties, celebrate and milk his riches) in rural Bengal in the 1930s. He has a huge estate on the river bank, and the river keeps eating into his land as it rises. He rides his horse (named Tufan) and has an elephant (named Moti) in his stable. He throws lavish parties, flowing with food, drinks, fireworks and entertainment. The main focus of the parties is the men-only music/dance performance held in his music room. The music room is the pinnacle of his pride - it is lavishly and ornately decorated with chandeliers, a larger-than-life-size mirror, and paintings of his forefathers dressed and decorated to the hilt, as a reminder of his lineage and status for his visitors. The men smoke, drink and enjoy the fine arts. For all his faults, the zamindar is a ardent lover of music and dance. He is transported by good music, and will go to any extent to hire the best performer for his music room parties.

He walks into the music room when the performance is underway, and basks in the attention and salutations thrown at him. And occupies the central position (half lying down on a cushy spread), with flowers, booze and a hookah specked around him. Takes in all the music and the atmosphere, nodding in approval regularly to his closest companions. And rewards the dancer/musician after the performance.

He funds all this extravagance by selling his valuables one by one (as his income is way below his expenses, which his manager keeps pointing out to him). His wife too chastises his for over-spending with abandon- he handles her, charms her and nullifies her concerns. His son, taking after him, shows interest only in music and riding the horse, Tufan.

His neighbor, Mahim Ganguli, is a money lender who charges atrocious interest rates and quickly rises up the economic ladder. Which is manifested in Mahim throwing parties and celebrations of his own, and inviting the best performers. This rubs the zamindar the wrong way, and hurts his pride. The zamindar's point is that Mahim represents new money and hence doesn't equal him and is uncouth (which Mahim is). When Mahim visits the zamindar to invite him to the housewarming of his newly constructed house on a given auspicious day, the zamindar wanting to one-up Mahim, informs him that he himself is throwing a party on the same day and forces Mahim to retreat. In spite of dwindling funds, and over-riding his manager, throws a lavish bash in the music room. And sends for his wife and son to return (who are visiting his wife's parents' house) immediately by houseboat.

And tragedy strikes. The scene building up to him discovering the tragedy is masterfully done. Just by inter-cutting a few shots of the window and the swaying chandelier with the performance, Ray builds an ominous tone and suspense. And to clinch it, there is a shot of a cockroach, belly-up, struggling, in the zamindar's drink cup - just brilliantly done.

From that day on, the zamindar withdraws into a shell, and the music room is shut. He moodily spends his days and his only relief is seeing Tufan and Moti (his horse and elephant) and some music. His servant and manager are super-loyal to him. His servant's demeanor and expressions mirror (multiplied by a 1000) that of his master's. He is extremely happy whenever he sees a spark of revival in his master, and is crest-fallen to see his master's morale sag into the shell.

Mahim keeps getting wealthy and keeps irritating the zamindar. And throws a big bash to celebrate his son's thread ceremony, and invites the best kathak dancer available, Krishna Bai to perform. This clinches it- and the zamindar snaps out of his moody shell, and organizes a bash to show Mahim his place (with the same Krishna Bai's performance) in his music room, with the last of his remaining wealth (the rest of which has since been auctioned off to settle his debts).

The manager is shell shocked. The servant jubilantly dusts off the music room and restores it to its past glory. And Krishna Bai performs in front of the zamindar, his cronies and Mahim. What a performance that is - it is one of the best picturized song and dance sequence ever- just see how Ray (and his cameraman Subrata Mitra) build the tension and the performance. And Roshan Kumari, who plays Krishna Bai, dances like a whirlwind. How this scene ends is one of the greatest pleasures of watching this movie.

The zamindar basks in the glory of this last flame-out of a celebration. He drinks and stumbles around the music room, admiring its opulence, his ancestors. And once again, Ray starts working his magic. The candles lighting the chandeliers start going-off one by one (as it eventually will) - and the zamindar panics- as he wants the night to last forever. Of course, it doesn't and the sun rises and disappoints him. He turns to his last refuge and decides to ride Tufan (his horse) in his intoxicated state. At this point, we know that he has nowhere else to go, and is spent, completely. At this point, I started rooting for him, and was relieved at the way the movie ends - there was no other way to go, and he couldn't have saved his dignity any other way. Should we care about the dignity of a loathsome, pompous character- we normally shouldn't. But sometimes, when you look closely at lives like this, it is very difficult to come out the same way you went in. And in the end, Ray has succeeded in making you see the human in the dinosaur.

Ray worked with very limited resources to make his movies. And he was so good at this game that the lesser the resources he had, the more spectacular the result on the screen was. Give him a dark room and a candle or a matchstick and he will create magic just with that - and there are some unforgettable scenes in his movies to prove this. There are few directors who could build so much tension by stringing some seemingly simple looking scenes together. He is the greatest Indian film director till date. And one of the best the world has ever produced.


Anonymous said...

A micro analysis with a macro outlook.

The Visitor said...

There is quite a storyteller in you M. Your review captured the elements and conveyed the mood of the movie precisely.

I wonder how you got to see Jalsaghar - it is usually screened in the movie clubs circuit.

magesh said...

@ Anon - Tea, coffee, banana milkshake

@ Visitor - Thank you. I was introduced to Ray through the DD Sunday afternoon (regional) movies. I found his movies absolutely riveting and absorbing. And then went around looking/buying his movies.