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The Music Room: Distant Music

In May 1956, an Indian film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. It wasn’t well attended. The Indian delegation had done little to promote it, arranging only a single midnight screening that clashed with a party in honor of Akira Kurosawa. In any case, few festivalgoers bothered to show up for “just another Indian movie.” Luckily, certain influential critics decided to skip the party and attend the screening—among them, Georges Sadoul, André Bazin, Gene Moskowitz (Mosk of Variety), Lotte Eisner, and Lindsay Anderson. Having watched the film, they were furious over its disdainful treatment, insisted on another screening at a more accessible time, and ensured that it was put up for an award.

The film was Pather panchali (1955), the work of a young, first-time director, Satyajit Ray, who, along with most of his crew, had no previous experience in filmmaking whatsoever. It told, with limpid simplicity, of a boy, Apu, growing up with his family in a small Bengali village. And, as many in Cannes soon realized, it was quite unlike any other Indian film they had seen. There was no melodramatic story, no exaggerated acting, no arbitrary interpolation of song and dance episodes. Writing about the festival in Sight & Sound, Anderson devoted the lion’s share of his report to Pather panchali. The film, he wrote, “dominated Cannes this year, surpassing new work by artists of the caliber of Donskoi, De Sica, and Kurosawa . . . The lives of these people are all the story of the film: there is no tight dramatic construction or conventional plot. The tension is poetic rather than dramatic, created by the artist’s intimate contact with his material, physical as well as emotional.”

Pather panchali was awarded the festival prize for best human document and went on to win a dozen more awards around the world. As its reputation spread, it was recognized that a major filmmaker had appeared on the scene. Ray had done something wholly unprecedented: for the first time, an Indian film and an Indian filmmaker had achieved world status.

Ray had drawn his script from a much-loved Bengali novel by Bibhutibhushan Banerji, and he now proceeded to mine the book and its sequel for a further film about Apu, Aparajito (1956). He would go on to complete what became known as his Apu Trilogy with The World of Apu (1959). But between the second and third parts of the trilogy, he set out to extend his range with two very different films. The Philosopher’s Stone (1958), a would-be satirical comedy about a poor clerk who finds a magic stone that turns base metal into gold, is generally considered one of his rare failures. But his second film of that year was quite another matter—gentle, subtle, elegiac, though not lacking a vein of quiet social comment. For some critics, The Music Room remains his finest work.

When Ray was trying to find backing for Pather panchali, several potential producers had dismissed his ideas out of hand on learning that the film would include no singing or dancing—both, in those days, considered indispensable ingredients of any Indian film. But now, with The Music Room, Ray was ready to demonstrate how, in his view, songs and dances should be used in a film—not as irrelevant interludes but as an integral and essential part of the action. “Here was a dramatic story,” he later wrote, “which could be laced legitimately with music and dancing, and distributors loved music and dancing. But here, too, was scope for mood, for atmosphere, for psychological exploration.”

Change, and the countervailing gains and losses attendant on the forces of progress, has often been singled out as one of the main themes of Ray’s work, and nowhere is that clearer than in The Music Room. The script, by Ray himself, is adapted from a short story by the Bengali writer Tarasankar Banerji. The period is the late 1920s, and the protagonist is an aging zamindar (feudal landlord), Biswambhar Roy, who lives amid the crumbling grandeur of his vast palace, idly puffing on his hookah and watching the last of his ancestral wealth trickle away. Out in the fields, a solitary elephant—perhaps the sole survivor of a once extensive herd?—pads morosely about, inter­mittently obscured by the dust raised by the trucks of the nouveau riche moneylender Ganguli, whose star has risen as the zamindar’s has sunk. Farther off, the river Padma flows sluggishly between mudflats; the very landscape seems gripped by terminal lethargy.

When we meet him, Roy (played by the eminent stage and screen actor Chhabi Biswas) is sitting quite motionless on the roof of his palace, as if embalmed. His aged servant, Ananta, approaches, bringing the hookah, and Roy barely stirs. “What month is this?” he inquires. Then he’s roused by the distant sound of a shehnai (an oboelike instrument); Ganguli, he’s told, is celebrating his son’s upanayana, a coming-of-age rite for boys. And at once, so subtly that at first we hardly notice it, we slip into a forty-minute flashback, as Roy remembers his own son’s upanayana, a few years earlier.

Music—crucial, of course, to the whole concept of the film—carries us across the transition to the flashback. A shehnai is still playing but now accompanied by a tanpura (a stringed drone instrument) and a tabla (a drum). A few years later, beginning with Kanchenjungha (1962), Ray would start composing the scores for all his films, but at the outset of his career, he called on the services of leading Indian classical musicians. Ravi Shankar provided the scores for all three parts of the Apu Trilogy; for The Music Room, Ray invited the distinguished Bengali maestro Vilayat Khan, scion of a long line of musicians, to compose the score. He was later to have slight misgivings about his choice. Khan, whose family had been generously supported for generations by a zamindari household, tends in his score to emphasize the nobler aspects of the film’s protagonist. Had Ray composed his own score, he reflected, “I would have given an ironic edge to it . . . But I liked Vilayat’s theme as a piece of music, and I felt the story would tell what I wanted to tell and the music would not interfere with my general attitude toward feudalism.”

In any event, Khan’s score, passionate and evocative, effectively sets the mood of the film. As the credits roll, we hear an urgent sitar solo, backed by Western-style strings, while the camera tracks in very slowly on an ominously swaying chandelier. This chandelier, the centerpiece of Roy’s much-prized music room, will figure prominently in the film: we’ll see it again swaying at the approach of a storm that brings major tragedy into his life, but it also symbolizes his whole existence, grandiose but obsolescent. Elaborate and impressive though it is, its numerous crystal sconces are filled not with light­bulbs but with candles. From Ganguli’s house, meanwhile, disturbing the zamindar’s peace, comes the monotonous chug of a generator. The moneylender has installed electricity.

Omens abound in The Music Room. It’s unlikely that Ray himself believed in them, but his protagonist does. As the concert staged during the storm reaches its climax, Roy glances into his glass and sees a struggling insect drowning in it; he reacts with dismay, and a few moments later comes the fatal news that the boat bearing his wife and son, summoned back to attend the occasion, has capsized. After the final concert, on which he has expended his last remaining funds, the zamindar wanders drunkenly through his now deserted music room, toasting first the gallery of his forebears—“To you, my noble ancestors!”—and then his own portrait, only to see a huge spider scuttle across his image. (Three years later, in Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, a disturbed girl would see a spider on the wall as an image of God, alien and indifferent—could Bergman have taken a hint from Ray’s film?) And as he turns away, disgusted, Roy sees reflected in his glass of brandy the lights of the chandelier above him going out, one by one. The metaphor is unmistakable: his world is guttering, growing dark and dying.

The music itself, to which Roy is so passionately if insensately devoted, becomes a key character in the film. Ray takes the opportunity to include several of the chief modes of Indian classical performance, from the Lucknow thumri (a romantic, sensual form of song generally performed by a woman) of the first concert we see, through the Muslim khyal (intricate, virtuosic singing, usually the province of male performers) of the second concert, to the kathak dance (an ancient form of solo narrative ballet) of the third and final concert. In Banerji’s original story, the kathak dancer is Roy’s mistress. Ray omitted this element, not from prudery but because he felt it was melodramatic. “Its elimination makes the film more austere,” he explained.

The zamindar’s palace, in decline yet still imposing, also becomes a character in its own right. After a long search for the building he envisaged, Ray and his team were told of a palace at Nimtita, in the Murshidabad district of Bengal, just across the river from what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). It proved to be ideal. “No one could have described in words the feeling of utter desolation that surrounded the palace,” Ray wrote in his essay “Winding Route to a Music Room” (see page 16). “[It] was a perfect materialization of my dream image.”

Ray was to use the Nimtita palace twice more, in Devi (1960) and in the “Sampati” episode of Three Daughters (1961). In one respect, though, it wasn’t perfect for The Music Room: it did have a music room, but it was small and unimpressive. Instead, a much larger and more elaborate specimen was fashioned by Ray’s regular set designer, Bansi Chandragupta, the largest set Ray had yet used; and its size, which seemed to invite overhead shots, led to a tragic incident. Showy camera work was rarely a feature of Ray’s films, but in this case, he succumbed to the temptation. “I had just won an award at Cannes and felt justified in asking for a crane,” he later admitted. On loading the cumbersome device onto a truck after the shots had been taken, it toppled and fell, killing one worker and crippling another for life. Guilt-ridden, Ray realized, “All this would not have happened if I had not set my mind on those overhead shots.”

In some quarters, it’s been suggested that Ray admires the zamindar and the feudal order he represents. It’s hard to sustain such a reading in the face of the evidence, though. True, the portrayal of Ganguli, representative of the newly risen moneyed class, is hardly flattering; but Biswambhar Roy is shown as selfish, petty, and blandly indifferent to the consequences of his actions. His wife, Mahamaya, about to leave with their son, Bireswar, to visit her ailing father, addresses him like a child: “I’m afraid to leave you alone. There’s no telling what you might do,” she says to him. “Behave.” Yet simply in order to upstage Ganguli, who, he learns, has planned a New Year’s Day concert, Roy immediately arranges a lavish rival event, to the alarm of his steward, who knows how little the dwindling estate can afford it. Even worse, it’s Roy’s insistence that Mahayama and Bireswar return for the concert, despite a gathering storm, that leads to their deaths.

It’s rare, though, that Ray’s humanistic vision portrays any of his characters in a wholly negative light (“Villains bore me,” he once remarked), and there’s undeniably a perverse, misguided grandeur in the zamindar’s pursuit of his obsession to the brink of disaster and beyond. In this, he foreshadows other ill-advised Ray protagonists: the very different though equally misguided zamindar in Devi (again played by Chhabi Biswas), who decides that his daughter-in-law is an incarnation of the goddess Durga, with tragic results, and Wajid Ali Shah, King of Oudh, in The Chess Players (1977), whose single-minded devotion to poetry leads him to neglect the encroaching menace of British imperialism, poised to annex his kingdom. Though fully alive to their weaknesses, Ray never withholds his sympathy from these characters.

In India, the critical and public response to The Music Room was puzzled and lukewarm. Some critics who had been disconcerted by the international acclaim for Pather panchali—a film so alien to the conventional notion of Indian cinema—had concluded on the basis of that film and its successor that Ray was an untutored primitive, a kind of Bengali Robert Flaherty. The Music Room, with its distinguished lead actor and sophisticated subject matter, wrong-footed them, leaving them even more bewildered. The public, for its part, had never before seen an Indian film that integrated musical elements seamlessly into the story; this was not, it was felt, how music and dance should be used on the screen. Indeed, though Ray was already becoming the most internationally famous and respected of Indian directors, he would always remain something of a minority taste in his own country.

Abroad, the success of Ray’s debut film had aroused considerable curiosity over what this exceptional director might do next. Initial reactions to Pather panchali had been mixed; not all foreign critics shared Lindsay Anderson’s enthusiasm. Bosley Crowther, all-powerful reviewer of the New York Times, was notoriously unsympathetic (as he was to certain other acclaimed masterworks of the art-house era, such as L’avventura and Bonnie and Clyde), though he was later to recant his dismissive views. But by the time of The Music Room’s overseas release, Ray’s reputation had blossomed to the point that the new film was assured of an audience and of considered reviews—even though Ray himself, believing it too culturally specific to attract non-Indian audiences, “didn’t think it would export at all.”

In subsequent years, the film’s reputation steadily grew, along with Ray’s stature as an artist. (In 1981, more than two decades after it was made, it was a rerelease of The Music Room that finally succeeded in opening up the hitherto indifferent French market to Ray’s films.) Today, The Music Room can be seen as an early pointer to the future breadth and variety of Ray’s work, as well as to the grace, lucidity, grasp of social resonance, and sympathetic insight into complex human emotions that make him one of the world’s finest filmmakers.

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