It's no surprise that Satyajit Ray's The Music Room is based on a short story (Tarasankar Banerji's "Jalsaghar"), since the film retains a literary quality. Still, Ray applies his own cinematic imagination to expanding upon his source, resulting in a surprisingly sympathetic elegy for the feudal class, or at least one of its sad representatives (The Music Room was a mid-Apu Trilogy project that allowed Ray to stretch his muscles in a new direction). In a commanding, haunting turn, stage-trained Chhabi Biswas plays Biswambhar Roy, a feudal landlord obsessed with keeping up with the Khans.
Roy's fortune has dwindled to almost nothing, but he lives in denial. When the film opens, he is keeping up appearances by selling off his wife's jewelry. The money invariably goes to fund music-listening parties with food, drink, and the latest, greatest musicians. Roy's relationship to the music is an obsessive love, likened to an addiction. As with a drug, there is a falloff of pleasure over time, and the same can be said for Roy's prideful addiction to the esteem in which he is accustomed to being held. Petty and competitive, he cannot stand the thought of a rival—namely his boastful but comically solicitous neighbor Ganguli (Gangapada Basu)—hosting a better concert. (The film's showcase music scenes include performances by Begum Akhtar, Roshan Kumari, Ustad Waheed Khan, and Bismillah Khan.)
Ray paints the tale in clean, broad, confident strokes, and the photography demonstrates Ray's sure sense of composition and camera movement. The desolate surroundings of Roy's deteriorating palace set a perfect stage for this phantom, not of opera but of khyal, thumri and kathak. Though the story ostensibly concerns Roy's increasingly isolating obsession with his music room, the deep-running still waters of the story are in the threat Roy's driven distraction poses to his relationships with his wife (Padma Devi) and son (Pinaki Sen Gupta), whose presence he nominally values but tragically takes for granted. The film's most memorable scene may be the visibly aged Roy's latter-day return to his now-unkempt music room, with its painted portraits framing a mirror that mockingly reflects its owner's failure to see what mattered most in life. The notion of lost legacy informs the film's distraught last word: "blood."
Criterion gifts film buffs with another international classic with the Blu-ray debut of The Music Room. Unfortunately, many of Ray's films have been poorly preserved, so The Music Room doesn't look quite as stellar as other films of its vintage. That said, this is still a top-notch presentation, given the available elements. This transfer derives from a large-scale restoration project involving Ray's work, and the image has been digitally scrubbed of many of its specks and scratches. Some flicker remains, but detail and contrast are quite good, with a deep black level. Sound is PCM 1.0: like the image, the sound elements presented a challenge, but hiss and crackle have been reduced by Criterion for a best-possible presentation.
Criterion has assembled a terrific group of contextual bonus features. The 2011 video essay “For the Love of The Music Room” (17:36, HD) features Ray biographer Andrew Robinson giving background and analysis on the film.
Director "Mira Nair" (15:44, HD) discusses her friendship with Ray and her love of The Music Room.
The 1981 French TV excerpt "French Roundtable" (10:36, HD) finds Ray in conversation with French journalists and critics. This excellent clip focuses on The Music Room and the importance of music to Ray.
Shyam Benegal's 1984 feature documentary Satyajit Ray (2:11:05, HD) is constructed largely of interview footage with the master filmmaker and film clips; it also includes footage taken on the set of Ray's The Home and the World.
A 37-page booklet includes film credits, photos, an essay by critic Philip Kemp, a 1963 essay by Ray about the film, and a 1986 interview with Ray.
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