Jalsaghar - Satyajit Ray's Classic On Feudal India!

By Murtaza Ali Khan. Posted on July 29, 2015

Jalsaghar (aka "The Music Room") is a 1958 drama film directed by master Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Based on a short story of the same name by Bangla writer Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, Jalsaghar presents the tale of decline of a feudal lord in the pre-independence India. Jalsaghar stars veteran Bangla actor Chhabi Biswas in the lead role of Huzur Biswambhar Roy.

Huzur is the last of Zamindars—a dying breed of landlords who once formed the very basis of the Indian Feudal System. Huzur’s glory days are over but his sense of superiority remains intact. He lives in the past neither acknowledging the present nor anticipating the future. He continues to be a servant of his refined tastes even as his coffers are getting empty.

The Music Room_Chhabi Biswas_Huzur Biswambhar Roy                                                Chhabi Biswas as Huzur Biswambhar Roy in Jalsaghar

In his glory days, Huzur was no less than an emperor and his music room was like his crown jewel. The most elite singers and performers from different parts of the country would come to Huzur’s estate to perform in front of him and his esteemed guests. Huzur despises a vulgar, ambitious commoner named Mahim Ganguly.
Ganguly, having attained riches through moneylending and other modern-day businesses, competes with Huzur by organizing supreme musical extravaganzas even though the former has no real taste for music or art (as evident from his restlessness during a musical performance depicted early in the film). In a desperate attempt to maintain his supremacy, Huzur overlooks his depleting monetary state and continues with his ostentatious musical fests.
In Satyajit Ray's own words Jalsaghar deals with “a music loving Zamindar who refuses to change with the times and thereby meets his comeuppance.

Jalsaghar_The Second Performance

Jalsaghar was Ray’s fourth film which he made after the commercial failure of Aparijito—the finally film in Ray’s much acclaimed “The Apu Trilogy”. Ray had initially thought of making a commercial film, based on some popular work of literature, which would incorporate popular Indian music.

But, what eventually transpired was something that was totally different. It was more of an art-house work than a commercial movie that Ray had initially intended to make. The movie failed to do well at the Indian box-office. But, it received both critical and financial success in Europe and the US and helped Ray earn international reputation.

The music of Jalsaghar was written by the Indian composer and sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan who was encouraged by Ray to compose musical pieces that would gel well with the movie’s dark and gloomy tone. The movie’s melancholic musical composition and sombre art direction—the sublime use of mirrors, chandeliers, etc.—gives it a gothic feel in the vein of American Film-Noir films of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Jalsaghar_Roshan Kumari Performance                                                   Jalsaghar: Roshan Kumari's dance performance

In addition to Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan’s spine-chilling music, Jalasghar is immortalized by an unforgettable musical performance from the legendary Indian Ghazal singer Begum Akhtar and an awe-inspiring dance performance from the famous Kathak dancer Roshan Kumari. The other noteworthy performers include Ustad Bismallah Khan, Waheed Khan and Salamat Ali Khan.

Satyajit Ray’s direction in Jalsaghar is nothing short of a revelation. It has the signature of a filmmaker working at the height of his powers. The aura of Ray’s mise en scène is at its full display in all the sequences filmed inside the music room. Ray’s camera captures everything with scalpel-like precision: be it the Indian landscape picturesquely captured in black and white or the interiors of Huzur’s majestic palace.

The credit should also go to Ray’s cinematographer Subrata Mitra who meticulously complements Ray’s artistic vision. In Jalsaghar, unlike Pather Panchali wherein Ray had offered a microscopic view of his characters, Satyajit Ray keeps his characters at a distance from the audience—something that the great American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick meticulously emulated in his 1975 epic masterpiece Barry Lyndon.

Jalsaghar_Mahim Ganguly                                                  Gangapada Basu as Mahim Ganguly in Jalsaghar                                                  

Despite lacking the raw power and pristine charm of Pather Panchali, Jalsaghar’s intellectual appeal and poignant beauty makes it Ray’s most evocative work. Over the last five decades, Jalsaghar has emerged as one of the most definitive works of cinema. Like any great filmmaker, Ray used his films not only as a means to fulfill his artistic yearnings but also as a medium to highlight important social issues. Ray's multifaceted humanistic works often focused upon the cultural, religious and socio-economic ambiguities of the Indian middle class.
In Jalsaghar, Ray highlights the perpetual conflict of tradition versus modernity while simultaneously examining the Indian caste system. While discussing the various aspects of Ray’s cinematic essay, this critic would be remiss not to make a special mention of the veteran Indian actor Chhabi Biswas. It is Biswas’ haunting portrayal of Huzur Biswambhar Roy that puts soul into the movie making it truly unforgettable.
Biswas was one of Ray’s most favorite actors and following the former’s demise in 1962, Ray admitted that he stopped writing middle-age roles that demanded high degree of acting prowess.

The Music Room_Chhabi Biswas

Like any consummate work of art, Jalsaghar can be savored in so many different ways. First, as a powerful character study about a man whose pompous lifestyle, rigid belief in landed nobility, and turgid opinions about pedigree and self-regard in a fast changing world drive him to utter ruination. How Huzur despite losing his wealth, wife, and successor continues with his false display of cachet in order to maintain an upper hand—as far as the social stature is concerned—vis-à-vis a parvenu like Mahim Ganguly.
Second, it can be looked upon as a tale of human obsession. Huzur’s passion for music is so deep-rooted that it eventually consumes him. If music is his deity then the music room is his temple and he worships his deity with such great fervor that one can only call it an obsession. The day Huzur is forced to shut down the music room is also the day he is forced to let go of his obsession, and he no longer remains the same man. We can see the same glow in Huzur’s eyes when the music room is reopened for one last performance. Even his devout servant gets thrilled at the very thought of reopening the music room.
The Music Room_Elephant Enveloped by Dust
                                            Jalsaghar: Huzur's elephant about to be engulfed by dust

Third, Ray’s film serves to be a social commentary on the fast changing state of affairs in the pre-independence India. How the wheel of fortune can humble the mighty and empower the weak. While Huzur has been a hapless victim of the vicissitudes of time, Ganguly has been one of its greatest beneficiaries. How a formidable agent of change like industrialization can stamp its authority on one and all.
There is a beautiful sequence in Jalsaghar wherein the dust particles scattered by the movement of Ganguly’s automobile seem to engulf Huzur’s elephant—Ray’s symbolism to demonstrate how the modern world was fast replacing the old one.
Fourth, Jalsaghar can be studied as a treatise on the use of music in cinema. The movie is a great musical in which Ray pays homage to classical Indian art forms of music and dance. Indian cinema is known for its music the world over but the music almost always serves to be a superfluous element. Its integration with the movie’s core is seldom complete. We usually see actors and actresses dancing and lip-syncing to the playback singer’s voice with the music only playing a secondary role.
Jalsaghar_The Re-opening of the music room
                                              Jalsaghar: Huzur shocked to see a stranger in the mirror

While the legendary Indian filmmaker Guru Dutt pioneered the integration of songs in the movie's narrative, Ray took it to another level by making a motion picture which had music at its very core. Another of Ray’s film (also centred around music and obsession) that comes to this critic’s mind while sharing his thoughts on Jalsaghar is Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977). The music and dance used in Jalsaghar not only serves the purpose of introducing the western audience to Indian art forms and culture but it actually mesmerizes the audience. Now, that’s what real cinema is all about!
Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar has several memorable sequences and one can talk at length about each one of them. But, the ones that deserve special mention are the movie’s opening and closing sequences. Barring these two scenes, much of the film is presented in form of flashbacks. Renowned film critic, the late Roger Ebert describes the opening scene of Jalsaghar as “one of the most evocative opening scenes ever filmed”.

jalsaghar chandelier glass                                            Jalsaghar: Glass chandelier's reflection in Huzur's drink 

The opening scene sets the tone of the movie. We are introduced to Huzur Biswambhar Roy and we see a man who is a mere shadow of what he would have been in his hay days. All that remains is his two loyal servants, the dilapidated palace, and his memories which both delight him and haunt him. We get glimpses of Huzur’s memories in form of sumptuous, almost hypotonic flashbacks.
Jalsaghar’s final sequence has a nightmarish feel to it. Huzur has just got over with his final act in the music room. Huzur’s pride, after having finally humbled his adversary Ganguly, is at its zenith as he toasts to his royal ancestry before finally standing in front of his own portrait. Like a true megalomaniac, Huzur, for a fleeting moment, forgets about the doom that awaits him. But, slowly the candles began to fade away leaving Huzur in state of shock (in a similar ominous sequence depicted earlier in the film an insect is shown trapped inside Huzur’s drinking glass… moments later Huzur learns about the accidental death of his wife and son).
The Music Room_Huzur_Ganguly
While the servant tries to assure him that it’s almost dawn and so he need not worry about the candles, Huzur sees it as the sign of his end. To the dismay of both his servants, Huzur mounts his horse and begins to ride it at a terrible pace only to lose his balance and get killed with his turban—the scepter of his pride—flying off his head in a grand operatic fashion.
Overall, Jalsaghar is a sublime work of cinema that, having stood the test of time for over five decades, continues to inspire the budding filmmakers as well as enthrall the audiences worldwide. Jalsaghar is widely regarded as Satyajit Ray’s most evocative film. It serves to be a great means of getting acquainted with Ray’s oeuvre. Jalsaghar with its universal motifs is also the most accessible of Ray’s films, especially for foreign viewers.

Jalsaghar_The Evocative Opening Scene                                                          A Still from Jalsaghar's Opening Sequence

Jalsaghar is not a movie that would woo a casual viewer. Restless viewers should best stay away from it. But, a patient viewer would be thoroughly rewarded. The movie owing to its slow pace may pose impediments to the uninitiated viewer. Jalsaghar is a deeply thought-provoking work of cinema that demands multiple viewings. The movie is a must watch for every student of cinema. Jalsaghar is an essential watch for all Satyajit Ray fans as well as those who understand and appreciate intelligent cinema.

Murtaza Ali Khan is an independent film critic based out of New Delhi, India. The post first appeared on his movie blog "A Potpourri of Vestiges". Cinema is not only his passion but also his greatest obsession. His all-time favorite filmmakers are Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Luis Bunuel, Andrei Tarkovsky, Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Fritz Lang, Jean-Pierre Melville, Sergio Leone, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Lars von Trier.

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