A year or so ago I wrote a series of posts in which I sought out ten well-known films I’d never seen before. Because it was such a rewarding project, I’m repeating it now. This time I decided to begin with Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (1958), partly because my unfamiliarity with Ray’s work is embarrassing, partly because The Criterion Collection recently put out a beautiful new edition of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray.
It is, indeed, a stunning piece of cinema, so gracefully composed that its emotional power sneaks up on you. A portrait of aristocratic decay, it is infused with an air of inevitable doom from its very first shot, in which we see the great man Biswambhar Roy lounging with his hookah in an attitude of languid imperiousness. He and his palatial estate—for which his much-prized music room, with its crystal chandeliers and rich furnishings, acts as a synecdoche—have fallen into disrepair. The Music Room is the story of his literal and metaphorical death, and about India’s fall into modernity, here presented as an inevitable but tragicomic historical turn. (Roy’s foil is the nouveau riche Ganguly, who is wealthy but tasteless, and whose home has been fitted out with all the modern conveniences. And so Roy’s dying act becomes not only a last attempt to one-up this inelegant neighbor but also a last assertion of an entire way of being that is about to vanish.)