Once, after I had dinner with Satyajit Ray, the great Bengali director, at his Calcutta home, he presented me with his book My Films, Their Films. Inscribed on the flyleaf was: ‘To Derek Malcolm, who sometimes likes my films.’ That was unfair. In fact, I think five or six of them could claim to rank among the 100 best films of all time.
One is Pather Panchali, the very first film Ray made in 1955 and the initial part of the extraordinary Apu trilogy. Another is Charulata, a study of middle-class relationships and disappointed love that is as memorable as the tribulations of the peasant Apu. But the film I would select above both is 1958’s Jalsaghar, or The Music Room, which proves beyond doubt that this writer, composer, illustrator and film-maker, who was sometimes accused of being more Western than Indian, was no such thing.
Though influenced by Jean Renoir, whom he aided with his Indian film The River, and bowled over as a young man by De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Ray owed his chief debt to Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet, writer and philosopher with whom he studied as a teenager.
The Music Room is an elaboration of a short story by Tarasankar Banerjee. The protagonist is an elderly zemindar (the equivalent of one of our landed gentry) who, in the late twenties, tries to stop the march of progress and the destruction of the culture he has grown up with.
The party is somehow organised, the most expensive dancer of the day hired and an invitation extended to Ganguli, the rich upstart that the whole affair is designed to put down. Finally, as the dancer finishes, and Ganguli makes to throw her an extravagant rupee tribute, his wrist is held by the crook of the old man’s once-elegant Bond Street walking stick. It is the host who will pay, and even more generously.
The film has a host of such moments: the old man’s ancient ceremonial elephant is contrasted with the horn of Ganguli’s car, blaring out Colonel Bogey as it passes. This is one of Ray’s most magnificently visual films, thanks to Subrata Mitra’s superb camera-work. But it is about music, too, with Ray’s equally ravishing score showing us that the old aristocrat’s appreciation of high art was not simply an attempt to show off.
Ray was criticised at the time for falling in love with his central character and the glorious past he represents. But that is to ignore the fact that the old man is an absurd and pathetic creature whose life has lost its meaning after the deaths of his wife and son – and of his class.
Chhabi Biswas’s great performance as the central character demands our affection, however, and we can share in his regret for the past even as we mock him. Ray insists he is neither hero nor anti-hero – just a lonely old man whose nostalgia leads him into absurdity but still one last triumph of a sort.
Ray was constantly accused in some circles of not being Indian enough, of not being radical enough in either content or style, and of adhering to an old-fashioned liberal humanism that would put him in the West’s good books. In the end, however, he became a monument to Indian cinema like no other. He kept several trunks full of awards under his bed, sometimes showing them to visitors as if to prove first that he’d won them and second that he wasn’t vulgar enough to display them.
Like all great film-makers, Ray belonged to the world as much as to his own nation. But The Music Room leaves no doubt where his heart lay. It was with his own people, warts and all.