Does The Elephant Still Have Her Trappings: The Music Room (1958)

The Music Room will break your heart.  Both a visual and aural masterpiece, The Music Room is one of many offerings from the long-overlooked Bengalese director Satyajit Ray, and thanks to The Criterion Collection is now widely accessible to American audiences.  This film is not a coming of age tale, like other of its era, but a going of age tale...if such things exist.  It paints a vivid and tragic picture of a newly independent India that still suffers from imperialist nightmares, and while the film is certainly a cinematic feast, it is entirely driven by the musical score that involved contemporary Indian artists and dancer.  Ray offers a movie for the people of India, yet given its accessible story and translucent visual elements, it becomes a world masterpiece of grand proportions.

Through non-linear narrative, The Music Room portrays the latter years of aristocrat Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) who lives on his roof and refuses to see anyone besides his servants.  However, the soft playing of a tabla in a room below awakens memories of a time in which Roy was a noted music connoisseur.  His home, specifically his music room, was a place of personal pride that brought Roy both respect and ever expanding amounts of death.  As he sees his family off for a trip, Roy takes it upon himself to outdo a rival in a concert, selling the family jewels to pay for the lavish event, one that includes Hennessy.  As if the debt were not a problem, Roy demands the immediate return of his family to be present for his concert.  Tragedy strikes during a rather dark musical performance as Roy is informed of his son and wife's deaths during an intense cyclone.  Distraught by his frivolous actions, Roy vows to close the music room and lives in solitude.  The film cuts back to an elderly Roy who, after hearing the tabla music, emerges from his hermit ways to reopen his music room.  Rejuvenated through a vicarious swan song, Roy attempts to ride his son's horse only to fall off and die in the process..his death being the final sacrifice in his attempt at aristocratic supremacy.

The Music Room is a textbook lesson in Indian music, a style unfamiliar to most American ears.  It is perhaps the most aurally incomprehensible music style for Americans...not including the assumed shrillness of Chinese opera.  As noted earlier, Ray created a film for his country, the result being a very intimate image of Indian musical culture.  Each performance in the film is of notable length, running between four and eight minutes providing a view into the complexities of a raga.  It allows viewers to witness the repetition, evolution and improvisation of Indian music, particularly given that most of the songs played consist of no more than two to three verses.  It also displays the "proper" way to listen to music, as Roy is shown tapping his finger on every 16th beat of a song, an important number in Indian music and a signifier of Roy's class.  Finally, and perhaps most visually stunning, is Ray's emphasis on the synchronous relationship between dance and music in India.  The closing performance involves an elaborate dance number with sweeping cinematography, well-executed jump cuts and a dance number that rivals Fred Astaire's firework extravaganza in Holiday Inn.  The Music room is basically India's answer to the big budget American musical, with a far heavier social commentary.

I am indebted to The Criterion Collection for such releases and cannot recommend this enough.  The film descriptor provided mentions the film being "incandescent" and watching the Blu-ray of this certainly proves this claims validity.

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