Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray is widely regarded as being among the world’s greatest directors. Unfortunately, the majority of his creative output is not easily available for American viewers, so his greatness is mostly maintained by critical assurance rather than popular support.
Mercifully, the Criterion Collection has made an effort to introduce Ray to a new generation via its DVD release of his 1958 drama “The Music Room.” This production is an extraordinary mixture of distinctive Bengali culture and universal themes of emotional loss.
Set in the 1920s, the film focuses on the reclusive aristocrat Roy (Chhabi Biswas), who lives with a few servants in a crumbling mansion. The abolition of the feudal zamindari system (in which landed gentry enjoyed quasi-royal economic privileges) has left Roy as something of an anachronism – a point that is reaffirmed by the arrival of his new next-door neighbor, a moneylender who represents the growth of India’s capitalist system of self-made men. Roy’s isolation is compounded by family tragedy, the ruin of his lands from flooding, and his reckless spending on expensive classical music recitals in his palace’s grand music room.
Half of “The Music Room” is an extended flashback that details the circumstances that fueled Roy’s slide into financial and psychological ruin, while the other half details his effort to scrape together a last hurrah of sorts by reopening his long-locked music room for one final recital.
“The Music Room” offers all of the virtues that one associates with Ray’s films: a deeply-textured screenplay, subtle cinematography and editing, an engaging music score (in this case, created by the master composer Ustad Vilayat Khan), and a marvelous ensemble. Chhabi Biswas, as the doomed Roy, offers an uncommonly subtle portrayal of a man on a slow road to oblivion. Biswas’ dialogue is relative sparse, yet he achieves the majesty and tragedy of his character with some of the most brilliant body language ever put on film.
Since Ray’s films are hard to come by, this DVD thoughtfully includes a 1984 documentary on the master filmmaker. This bonus feature will bring many viewers up to speed on Ray’s genius and will offer classic scenes from his acclaimed works.
What is really needed, however, are more of Ray’s films in the Criterion Collection line-up. “The Music Room” is a welcome addition, and let’s hope that the label will keep the Ray titles coming in 2012.