My Thoughts on: The Music Room (1958)

Yesterday, for the first time in a while, I sat down and watched a movie from my collection. I’ve actually seen The Music Room before, but I hadn’t blogged about it, so today I decided to change that.

If you’ve never seen Indian cinema, then The Music Room (Jalsaghar) is a pretty good place to start. The film was directed by the legendary Satyajit Ray and was released in 1958. I believe the story is set sometime after India achieved its independence from the British Empire in the late 1940s, a time of great change for millions of people. But for Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), the main character of the story, all of these things don’t concern him in the least. He’s a zamindar (landlord) from a noble family and he happily spends his days throwing parties and music recitals instead of managing his lands or his dwindling finances.

Biswambhar Roy’s financial difficulties, and indeed his decline throughout the story are set in direct contrast to the rise, well, the attempted rise, of Mahim Ganguli (Gangapada Bose), the son of a moneylender, who works and invests his way into great wealth by the end of the story. It is made painfully obvious that Mahim is attempting to buy his way into the polite society that Biswambhar Roy belongs to, thinking that money alone is all he needs to get in. But what Mahim fails to understand is that, in this society at least, money is not what makes one noble, but rather one’s background. That’s why, despite eventually being left with no money, Biswambhar Roy still receives more respect from the locals than Mahim can ever dream of getting.

However, don’t think that this is only a story about Mahim Ganguli rising where Biswambhar Roy falls. While that is a significant side plot, the crux of the story is with Roy and the end of life as he knows it. As I said at the beginning, Biswambhar Roy is obsessed with giving music recitals, indeed he’s obsessed with music in general (even his wife comments on it). And it’s this obsession that leads to the downfall of the family. Even though Biswambhar Roy is cautioned that the money is running out, the zamindar is determined to prove that he can still provide the entertainments traditionally expected of men of his status, especially if it shows up upstarts like Mahim Ganguli. This he does….but with tragic consequences that bring Roy’s world crashing down upon him in a scene of pure heartbreak.

Speaking of music, part of what makes The Music Room so notable is that the film highlights Indian music and Indian dance and incorporates both into the story. We are treated to several vocal performances from some of India’s greatest musicians of the time (I particularly highlight Begum Akhtar’s performance as the singer in the film’s first music sequence). The Music Room was the first film to do this and I feel it captures a perfect snapshot of Indian music and dance from that era. Indeed, if I ever found myself teaching a music class again, when the time came to discuss world music I would have my students watch this film because it highlights so much of Indian music so well.

Ultimately, The Music Room is a tragedy of the highest order. No matter how much Biswambhar Roy wishes it, the glory days of his family will never return and watching this man lose everything is a heartbreaking experience that will stick with you long after the credits roll.

Let me know what you think about The Music Room in the comments below and have a great day!

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