One of the most wonderful things that can happen when you're watching a movie is that sudden moment when a shot draws your focus to its real essence, that moment at which you fully realize what you're actually seeing. In a scene towards the end of "The Music Room" (1958), a kathak dancer spins gracefully in front of a mirror. She is beautiful, her dance is beautiful, and the shot is beautiful, but when she reaches a certain point in the room the scene transforms into something truly sublime, but it takes a few seconds to fully absorb it.
Her reflection in the giant mirror is visible in the right background of the frame and you can't help but see it, but then suddenly (though it has already been there) her shadow springs to life on the wall to the left (also background). There she is in the center foreground, sandwiched between her once-removed mirror image and her fully abstracted shadow, and they're all twirling in perfect harmony, three points of motion that turn a simple concert scene into a dynamic composition that is transfixing. It does not last nearly long enough (though on Blu-ray we can replay and replay it) but it is there nonetheless and I wish to heck more filmmakers would rip it off because I could watch it for hours. Dancer, mirror, shadow, all arranged in a triangle, gliding and pirouetting for as long as you can hold the image in your mind. This is why movies exist.
This dynamism marks a stark contrast with the opening of the film in which we see an older man sitting in a chair, staring motionlessly ahead. It almost looks like a still photograph, but there's the faintest movement, so maybe it's like one of those scenes in a Western where everyone has to freeze as they pose for their tintypes. But no, this is our protagonist Biswabhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), an aging zamindar (a noble landowner) who is slowly dying, though not because he is ill. Rather, his very way of life is dying. India is changing and growing around him, but only around him, and certainly not in the environs of his decaying palace or his once-vast property that is gradually being eroded by rising waters. He has become a relic, but if he is aware of it, he suppresses the knowledge. He is still a great lord, and even if he is so desperate for money he has to hock his wife's jewels, he will maintain appearances.
Born of many generations of noble blood, Roy has never had to do much (though he notes that he opened his doors once and provided shelter for thousands during a great flood) but he is a passionate patron of music, and proudly maintains the finery of his luxurious music room for as long as he can afford to. Though he dearly loves music, the room is also an expression of his vanity, and becomes his way of competing with his neighbor Mahim Ganguli (Gangapada Bose), a successful businessman whose very success strikes Roy as sacrilegious. Ganguli doesn't have noble blood. He is, shudder, a self-made man and employs modern technology, including a car and an "electric machine" that pumps noise into Roy's previously silent nights. Roy is more of an elephant, horse, and candle man himself. I sympathize; I'm still resisting the mobile Internet revolution.
Writer-director Satyajit Ray was the hot new kid on the international circuit. His magnificent film "Pather Panchali" was a surprise hit at Cannes in 1956, the main surprise being that an Indian director made a non-song-and-dance film that could catch the eye of art-house audiences. "Pather Panchali" would form the first part of Ray's now legendary Apu trilogy, and he shot "The Music Room" (based on a short story by Tarasankar Banerji) in between parts two and three. "The Music Room" was his way of featuring classical Indian music, but in a manner integrated into the narrative. Characters do not suddenly burst into song as in Bollywood films whose raison d'être was/is often the songs and dances for their own sake. Roy arranges three concerts in his music room: one to celebrate his son's coming-of-age, the second and third intended as more showy displays of his prestige, though the second marks an end of a stage of life for the zamindar, the third one a last attempt to reignite his former glory. Each features different forms of classical Indian music with well-known performers of the time, but I am poorly qualified to discuss that.
Chhabi Biswas was also a very well-known star, and his embodiment of the aging Roy, falling apart bit by bit in concordance with his palace, is completely convincing. Initially, it seems like Satyajit Ray is loading the deck against the "self-made" Ganguli, a sweaty, nervous, uncouth sort who is ill-suited to move up in class. But he is at least an honest man who actually earned his fortune; Roy's sense of superiority is entirely a matter of entitlement. We feel sorry for Roy, but his vanity and his general sloth prevent him from being a fully sympathetic figure. It is, alas, time for him to go, and make way for the Gangulis of the world. But still, it is sad to see him alone, one of the last of his kind, just as it is sad to see the one elephant Roy has left in his possession grazing forlornly in the distance.
The musical performances (scored by Vilayat Khan) are exceptional though you can guess by now that the third and final one is my very favorite. Indian audiences were reportedly a bit perplexed, however, by Ray's unusual (by popular standard in India) approach to music and the film met with a mixed response at home, but it became a major success abroad. Ray would not always be as appreciated in his home country as on the international festival circuit, but with time he became a major cultural icon, especially in Kolkata and his influence on Bengali cinema is immeasurable.
In a few senses, Ray is a bit like Akira Kurosawa (who was a huge fan of his work). If Western audiences know only one Japanese director, it is surely Kurosawa (unless they are J-horror fans) and likewise Satyajit Ray came to represent the entirety of non-Bollywood Indian cinema to the world. That remains largely the case today. Western cinephiles who take their movies a little more seriously will soon discover Japanese directors like Ozu and Mizoguchi, but look deeper into Indian cinema (again, ex-Boollywood) and you get… Satyajit Ray.
Thank goodness Ray is a brilliant filmmaker, but it is a shame that, for many Western film lovers, he is still "the Indian director" which is really a further reflection of our lack of awareness since he is more accurately a Bengali director. OK, a so a few people know Ritwik Ghatak, and a recent Guru Dutt retrospective slowly crept across the globe, but I'm willing to admit I had never heard of Mani Kaul until his obituary cropped up on my Facebook feed a few weeks ago. While India has been as successful as any nation in exporting its indigenous cinema, the DVD age hasn't brought many of the jewels of Indian art-house cinema to home viewers.
I hope that changes, but for now we have Satyajit Ray, and his splendid film "The Music Room" in a new Criterion release. It's a start.
Satyajit Ray's films have not been treated well by time. Summarizing from the lengthy note provided in the Criterion booklet: He shot on safety film which looks beautiful but is not well-suited to hold up to India's humid environment. The Satyajit Ray Preservation Project, which began in 1992, sought to preserve the best elements (gathered from multiple sources around the world) of all of his films. "The Music Room" was one of the first films preserved, but a laboratory fire in London destroyed the original camera negative of "The Music Room." A second generation fine-grain master positive from India was the best remaining source and was moved to Los Angeles where it was restored and has been preserved since.
This 1.33:1 high-def transfer can't help but show some of the shortcomings of the source print. In the opening shot, many scratches are visible, enough that it looks like a well-worn traveling print. Most other shots aren't nearly as damaged but it varies from moment to moment. Many scenes look almost unblemished. The level of detail is about average for a Criterion high-def transfer and the many white-on-white shots (characters in white clothing against white backgrounds) look less detailed than the rest.
But considering the source limitations, this digital restoration is quite an accomplishment. For those of us who have strained to watch "The Music Room" on VHS and on shoddy SD transfers before, it's practically a revelation. There is no way to make the film look "perfect," but it sure looks good here. Criterion has done impressive work with this 1080p restoration.
The LPCM Mono track also exhibits some signs of distortion and damage and may sound a bit thin compared to other lossless audio tracks, but wow what a step up from anything else I've heard. It's not a dynamic sound, but it preserves the music well which (no duh) is an essential part of "The Music Room." Optional English subtitles support the Bengali audio.
The most substantive extra on this release is "Satyajit Ray" (134 min.), a 1984 documentary by Shyam Benegal. At over two hours, the documentary doesn't lack for material, but I was disappointed by it. It begins with extensive (interminable) on-set footage from Ray's "The Home and the World" (1984) then transitions into an interview format covering Ray's family history and his career. It's great to hear Ray (quite a presence) but I found the documentary very dry – more like a lengthy Wikipedia entry. I only made it through the first 45 minutes, but I'll watch the rest eventually.
The disc also includes interviews with director Mira Nair (16 min.) who provides a broad appreciation of Ray's work and of "The Music Room" and with Ray biographer Andrew Robinson (17 min.) in which he talks more about the various forms of music used in the film.
A rather odd excerpt (10 min.) from a Jan 18, 1981 episode of the French television show "L'invite de FR3" features a roundtable discussion with Ray, film critic Michel Ciment, director Claude Sautet, and host Dominique Reznikoff. The episode was aired just before the French theatrical debut of "The Music Room" more than 20 years after it was made. In a cringe-worthy, Sautet extols the "exotic" nature of Ray's work which, needless to say, isn't the word that Ray would use.
The 36-page insert booklet features an essay by critic Philip Kemp, a 1963 essay by Satyajit Ray about the search for the palace used in the film, and a 1986 interview with Ray about the music in the film (interview conducted in Kolkata by Andrew Robinson).
The Apu trilogy is brilliant and I am also a huge fan of "The Big City," "Charulata" and "Devi" but of all the Satyajit Ray films I have seen, "The Music Room" is my favorite. I've seen it several times, but this Criterion restoration, even with the limitations imposed by the source print, makes me feel like I have just seen it for the first time. This is easily one of the best Blu-rays of 2011.