Tuning into "The Music Room"

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.)       

Ray, who burst onto the international film scene in 1955 with his first feature Pather Panchali, has long been regarded as the greatest of Indian filmmakers, and The Music Room is widely considered to be one of his masterpieces.  So it’s somewhat surprising to come across a dissenting opinion such as that of Stanley Kauffmann, who in more-than-a-little-bit ethnocentric 1963 review called The Music Room “extremely tedious” and dismissed its use of traditional Indian music as “uncongenial and tiresome.”  Kauffmann claims that contemporary film critics were divided over Ray between those who saw him as “a pre-eminent humanist poet” and those who claimed he was nothing more than “a well-meaning clumsy ethnographer, dependent on antique film concepts.”  Considering that Ray’s naturalistic character studies were quite radical departures from the opulent musicals that had become the norm in Indian cinema, this last claim seems particularly difficult to justify; in any event, the former group seems to have won out, as Ray has effectively taken his place within the canon of great world directors.  Kaufmann continues to go on about his inability to engage with the film and does some “is it my fault or the film’s fault?” speculation before deciding that it is, in fact, the film’s.  Fifty years later, consensus seems to have decided the opposite.  The Music Room is spellbinding filmmaking. 

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