Produced between the second and third entries Satyajit Ray’s famed Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World Of Apu), his 1958 masterpiece The Music Room broke from those films’ neo-neorealism to focus instead on the foolhardy passions of a faded aristocrat. After Aparajito tanked at the box office, it was Ray’s commercial impulse to make a musical that would connect to a wider audience, but he was determined to do it his way. Eschewing the artificial song-and-dance sequences of Hollywood or Bollywood, Ray wanted the music more naturally incorporated into the story of a connoisseur who squanders his dwindling fortune on hosting concerts. So while The Music Room is full of mesmerizing performances, each one has deep thematic resonance, too, revealing the all-consuming obsession and tragic hubris that slowly usher the man into obsolescence.
Told within a simple yet enormously effectively structure that puts half the film in flashback, The Music Room opens with Chhabi Biswas, the last in a long line of Bengali zamindars (aristocrats), convalescing on the roof of his crumbling estate. From that vantage, he can see the Ganges River, which has flooded most of his land, and hear the music from parties thrown by a nouveau riche neighbor (Gangapada Basu) who earned his fortune by entrepreneurship rather than blood. The flashbacks relay the events that landed Biswas in this sad state, chiefly a marriage he frayed by hocking his wife’s jewelry to pay for concerts and a boating accident that would have been prevented were it not for his bullheadedness. Out of a prideful need to upstage the commoner next door, the now-reclusive Biswas eyes a concert that seems beyond his means.
Adapting—and in one major twist, cleverly reworking—a short story by popular Bengali novelist Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, Ray doesn’t pass judgment on his hero, and Biswas’ enigmatic performance deflects it, too. Through one lens, he could be viewed as an arrogant layabout who never earned the fortune he’s squandering; through another, he could be appreciated for surrendering his life to the fleeting but exquisite pleasures of music. All those feelings come into place in the spectacular finale, a dance sequence that builds into something both blissfully ecstatic and a little out of control. The music and the story unite perfectly in that moment—a dancer’s movements as a projection of the host’s roiling soul.
Key features: New 15-minute interviews with Ray biographer Andrew Robinson and director Mira Nair provide some background, with Robinson especially valuable in placing the film in context with Ray’s emerging career. A brief excerpt from a 1981 French panel show finds Ray politely tolerating the effusive praise offered by film critic Michel Ciment and director Claude Sautet. An extensive 1984 documentary, simply titled Satyajit Ray, encompasses the entire scope of his work.