Certainly one of my very favorite films, Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room bathes its viewers in gorgeous Indian culture while remaining universally accessible with its masterful photography and stunning music. Masked beneath the beauty, though, is one of the saddest portrayals of crumbling patriarchy imaginable. Biswambhar Roy, the last in a line of feudal lords, is nearing bankruptcy. Despite constant pleas from his wife, he refuses to shut down his splendid music room, his lone sanctuary from reality. Maintaining the dancers, musicians, and other such luxuries slowly siphons away Roy’s money, until he realizes the errors of his ways. He closes The Music Room, but it’s too late…his inability to adapt to the times has drained away most of his soul. With his last iota of strength, he reopens the room for a glorious finale, a swan song concert that will never be forgotten. After its conclusion, a drunken Roy insists on riding his horse for one last time, despite being disabled…and in a heartbreaking denouement, falls to his death. Having seen the palace lights burn out, he’s decided that his own life must be extinguished.
There are several subplots, like the wedding of Roy’s son (told in flashback) and Roy’s sleazy underling who attemps to weasel special privileges by taking advantage of the kingdom’s decay. All are important thematically, but what makes The Music Room such a remarkable picture is its ability to tell its story almost exclusively through music and visuals. Removing every line of dialogue would hardly diminish the film at all. Ray captures the landscapes with extreme long shots, complementing them with slow zooms that magically take us to precisely where he wants us. Consider the horse galloping towards the palace early on, signifying that some optimism remains; the abode is still somewhere desirable. By the end, the horse bears Roy away in an eerie twin composition, taking him far from the final sorrowful memories of his kingdom.
Breaking down the first concert:
To truly illustrate The Music Room‘s rare ability to narrate without dialogue, I will break down the four minute concert that occurs about fifteen minutes in, during the flashback. Observe the picture to your left. In the still alone, we see the men’s relaxed poses (there are no women) enhanced by their loose-fitting white robes and the smoking of hookahs. Clearly, The Music Room removes tension and toil, firmly planting the men in the moment. Although Roy is in the front, he has no qualms about being surrounded by those of a lower status. Further examination beyond the still unlocks much more. A long tracking shot glides through the room, displaying the pristine details in every piece of art, the giant mirror, the mass of people gathered on the rug to enjoy the performance. Occasional close-ups capture dreamy faces that eschew the thought of returning to reality. The finest shot, though, is a gentle zoom into Roy’s face just as the singing hits a particularly beautiful note. We see the quiet love etched in the corners of his mouth, The Music Room‘s importance to his life. The entrancing music gracefully plays the entire time, lulling us into the director’s world. While Ray’s Apu Trilogy tackled a greater scope of Indian culture, his approach in The Music Room is no less impressive, always planting the viewers in the lovely palace, making us forget about Roy’s impending financial doom, in the same manner that he eventually allows his empire to collapse…
If you don’t find Indian music as beautiful as I do, The Music Room won’t be nearly as enchanting. Ray went all-out, hiring some of the best musicians and dancers of the period to perform the concert scenes. They occur at intervals, breaking up Roy’s social devastation with bittersweet melodies. During the second concert, Roy’s son and wife drown in the river during a terrible storm. The lightning crashing down, the insect that finds itself trapped in Roy’s glass, all symbolize the impending tragedy as the music tries to eliminate worry and woe. The final concert is staged out of jealousy—Roy doesn’t wish to be upstaged by his slimy neighbor. Of course, the end result is the picture’s conclusion…one that puts the final stamp on a wrenching tale of decadence gone wrong. In all its tonal and visual splendor, The Music Room demands to be seen by anyone tired of the same ol’ talky bullshit.