Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Music Room (Jalsaghar) (1958)

Sometimes acknowledgements are in place. This time it would be to the German co-traveler who helped fix the ridiculously defect power outlet here in the gate in Copenhagen airport enabling me to write this post in the first place. One should think I was not the first traveler who wished to use my computer in the gate…

Anyway, Jalsaghar…

Lately I have not had much luck with movies from exotic places, which is largely down to my general dislike for those places and thus not necessarily the fault of the movies themselves. Maybe I am just a grumpy old man. “Jalsaghar” in another Indian movie from Satyajit Ray and that is not really a good starting point. Add to that the dismal condition of the movie and the fights I had with the subtitles and this review can only really go one way.

To my own surprise it is not.

“Jalsaghar” is more a mental state than a movie. There is a dreamy quality to this movie that never really touch the ground. Part of that is the central role of the music, which take up maybe half or at least a third of the movie. It is Indian, yes, but instead of the painful discordant sounds I normally associate with Bollywood movies this sounds like an endless marijuana induced trance. This music is also perfectly aligned with the sleepwalking mood of the story itself and so becomes an integral part of the experience and not the artificial breaks normally associated with musicals. In other words, for what this movie is trying to do it is perfect.

I am not 100% sure I understand the particulars of the story. They do sort of slip by and with subtitles out of sync the sense of disconnect with reality is reinforced. What I do get is that we follow a landlord of the traditional feudal class, Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), who lives an aloof life in his old palace. He is of old money, but his penchant for devoting his time to music and dreaming rather than attending to his possessions means that these assets are slowly slipping away. His advisors and his wife are trying to pull him back, but when his wife and son dies at sea in a storm it only makes him retire even further into his lethargic dream state.

Roy’s standard posture is reclining on his couch smoking his nargila (waterpibe). I wonder if his tobacco is entirely legal, because he looks very relaxed even in the midst of disaster. Only the disastrous deaths around him and the flooding of his lands brings him momentarily up to the surface and that is not a pleasant place.

The counterpoint to Roy is Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose). He is a neighbor who starts out as a lowly vassal, but being thrifty and eager to embrace everything new he gains wealth and it is implied that eventually he far surpasses Roy in earthly might. But Ganguly is plebeian and Roy is patrician, in manner and thinking, and to Roy Ganguly represents a general decline. His music and culture around it is what he clings to and what makes him nobility, not his money and he is not shy to reiterate that argument. In fact it is the only thing he has left.

So, in that analyses “Jalsaghar” is the conflict between new money and old money, about culture versus earthly wealth and tradition versus modernity, issues that would resonate with post-colonial India. To me however it is all about the trance, its costs and its pleasure. Music is a pleasant drug, but Roy is using it as a refuge and as such it is as dangerous as any substance abuse.

The amazing thing here is that despite its aging and poor quality of preservation this movie works today as well as when it was made. I never thought I would hear myself saying it by I would love to be invited to Roy’s music sessions and simply embrace the music. That is the power it holds.

Don’t do drugs, kids, and careful with that music.


  1. So glad Ray redeemed himself! I can't imagine watching the whole thing on bad quality. The DVD I rented was so awful and I could tell subtitles would be so bad that I despaired. Fortunately, I was able to get it restored on streaming.

    Now that the Olympics are ending I hope to pick up my own viewing ...

    1. I tried to buy a copy but the order was for some reason cancelled. Apparently the movie was not available after all. Poor quality detracts no matter what, but this movie survives because of the music and the etheral ambience.
      I am also back from 3 weeks in Germany and Denmark with a lot of Olympics. Time to pick up the pace a bit...