Satyajit Ray (director)
Criterion Collection (studio)
99 min (length)
07 August 2017 (released)
24 August 2017
This 1958 Indian affair (and how I wish someone would come up with the practical solution of using colored subtitles for b/w films!) was near legendary Bengali writer/director Satyajit Ray's fourth film. Many would say it is his best though of course that is for you to decide. The plot itself is an incredibly simple one and one cannot help thinking that it may have read better as a short story and indeed the film is derived from just such a source. Of course, that comment is written by yours truly – a reviewer with a western viewpoint.
The plot – told in flashback - concerns wealthy landowner Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) – a so-called ‘zamindar’ (lord of the land) who has seen better days: Roy lives in a splendid but decaying mansion and desperately tries to keep up his beloved lifestyle of indulgence and decadence – much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife Mahamaya (Padma Devi) and their teenage son Khoka (Pinaki Sen Gupta). Roy has but one great and overriding interest in life and that is his complete and utter love of Indian classical music. Roy more often than not completely immerses himself in this music whilst inhaling at his perennial hookah. His days of wealth are fast declining, in fact, unbeknownst to his ever-loving wife he sold most of her jewellery in order to put live concerts on at his palace - with invited special guests to rack up the expenses even more. Musicians in this instance would appear to have charged an astronomical fee. Equally long-suffering is Roy’s loyal servant Ananta (Kali Sarkar) who tries in vain to convince Roy that it’s about high time to start saving the rupees rather than frittering the money away!
Meanwhile his snuff taking-neighbor Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose), who holds 'the great man' in high esteem, has done well for himself as a 'self-made' businessman and has started putting on concerts at his own home. The grand old man cannot tolerate this and sees it as some kind of insult to his prestige. Despite polite invites from his 'inferior' neighbor to attend 'his' concerts he refuses - they are seen as slights to his authority. Things get even worse when Roy’s beloved wife and only son are killed in a cyclone whilst on a boat trip. A nice touch here as at the same time the tragedy unfolds, Roy has put on a concert and the chandelier in the Music Room starts to jangle and an insect starts moving frenetically in his sherbet drink.
After learning of the accident he then closes the room and spends a long time meditating and smoking his hookah (years go by presumably as he ages and goes grey). He even refuses to ride his beloved Palomino horse. However, his neighbor (who refers to him as 'grandfather') is getting wealthier still from his business dealings and pays him another visit to invite him to a concert at 'his' home. This time Roy refuses yet again and decides he will totally trash his upstart of a neighbor and will re-open the Music Room - now in a state of disrepair. Despite ample warnings from servant Ananta he is determined to put this concert on himself and yes, this will cost him just about every rupee he has left! The concert turns out to be an overwhelming experience featuring a dancer (Roshan Kumari) and a band going into a frenzied dance mode. Of course the experience can only end in ultimate tragedy for Roy and it is beautifully done.
Perhaps it would help if Western ears could be more trained when it comes to listening to this (not immediately accessible) music, notably by singer Ustad Waheed Khan. Furthermore it would help to know a little more about the Indian caste system, which may explain Roy's overbearing attitude to his seemingly subservient neighbor. It seems clear from the beginning when Roy hears the sound of a Shenai coming from his neighbor’s house that the film will be drenched in Indian classical music. If this music appeals you then you are in for a veritable treat. If not, then you might struggle.
Director Ray used a number of different composers for his films – to us Western folk perhaps Ravi Shankar is the best known but here we have Vilayet Khan (also a Sitar player) and Robin Majumdar (vocalist) with whom Ray worked on the score, as was his usual custom. Biswas is quite befittingly pompous in the lead although it is difficult to find any sympathy with the cantankerous old goat.
There is plenty of splendid imagery and the cinematography by Subrata Mitra is a treat. Curiously compelling and gloriously restored, although to call it one of the greatest films of all time might perhaps be going a little far.