There is a scene well into Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (The Music Room) in which the protagonist, a reclusive and close-to-bankrupt zamindar named Bishwambar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) stands outside his crumbling palace and looks out towards the riverbank, where his elephant Moti—his only asset worth anything—is standing. Bishwambar Roy’s stance, the squared shoulders, the raised chin, shows his pride: his pride in the elephant, his pride in the many generations of wealthy aristocracy that he can lay claim to, his pride—as he tells someone in another scene—in his blood.
Even as he looks out at his elephant, a truck, with the name of Ganguli (Roy’s wealthy, ‘self-made man’ neighbour) on it comes along. It’s heading towards the riverbank too, and as it proceeds, it raises clouds of dust, obscuring the river, the land, and the elephant. Blocking out Bishwambar Roy’s view of that last vestige of his wealth, and prompting him to take what turns out to be a decision that will prove a turning point in the story.
A scene with no dialogue (until the end, when Bishwambar Roy whips about and gives his servant some instructions), this one is all visual. It’s a good insight into what Jalsaghar is really all about: not just the last-ditch effort of an impoverished zamindar to show that he’s still a force to be reckoned with, but the reason for that effort. The need for Bishwambar Roy to let the world know that he will not let an upstart like Ganguli come between Bishwambar Roy and the esteem that is rightfully (or so thinks Bishwambar Roy) his.
It is also a fine example of Satyajit Ray’s genius as a film maker. His ability to not drench every scene in dialogue, to not let everything be spoken. Bishwambar’s lost glory, for instance, is not spoken of: it is shown. Shown through the dilapidation of his palace, its brickwork now exposed in places, its plaster gone black and neglected.
In, too, the large ornate-framed mirror that hangs in the jalsaghar, the music room which was once Bishwambar Roy’s most cherished space in his palace: the room where he would host concerts and performances for his own enjoyment and the envy of his guests. This is a mirror that appears constantly through the film, at various times. In the past, for instance, when the jalsaghar was in constant use, its floor laid with carpets, its chandeliers glittering. The mirror gleaming and bright, reflecting the grandeur (even if it was already fading) of the Roy zamindari.
…and now, when Bishwambar Roy, after a gap of several years of keeping the jalsaghar locked up, has it reopened. The mirror reflects, literally, its owner’s fallen circumstances. When Bishwambar Roy reaches out and rubs off the dirt and the dust which has accumulated on its surface over the years, the image of himself he sees is that of a worn man, old and broken, a mere shadow of himself. A man who does not even look any more as if he is the last descendant of the imperious-looking zamindars whose portraits hang above the mirror and around it.
For Bishwambar Roy can rest only on the laurels of his ancestors. The Roys—Bishwambar’s great-great-grandfather, his son, and so on—have been typical landed gentry: immensely wealthy, well-respected, feared—and patrons of the arts. Bishwambar Roy’s love for music has been his greatest love, so much that he has neglected his land for it. In a flashback, we are transported to the past, when the Roy palace was still a living, throbbing household, presided over by Roy’s wife (Padmadevi). Not a wealthy household, even then, what with Roy having to take recourse to selling off some of his wife’s jewellery in order to meet the expenses of hiring a singer to perform in the jalsaghar.
Not something that would go down well with his wife, and it doesn’t. She is, predictably, cut up about it, but there’s little she can do except let her displeasure be known. And that is hardly going to make any difference to Roy, whose desire to show off far outstrips his ability to afford that showing off.
Plus, Roy has just received a visit from Mahim Ganguli (Gangapada Basu), the businessman son of a local man. Mahim Ganguli has arrived to pay his respects, and though he’s all that is correct, there hangs about him the stink of enterprise—something that immediately puts Bishwambar Roy’s back up. This Mahim Ganguli is an upstart; a nobody. The only thing he has is vulgar wealth, which he has no qualms about flaunting. And for which Roy decides to put him in his place, by holding a superb performance in the jalsaghar, a performance which will eclipse all else.
It means pulling out all the stops and mortgaging more of his wife’s jewellery, but Bishwambar Roy doesn’t baulk at that. It also means sending word that his wife and their beloved teenaged son, Khoka (Pinaki Sengupta) should return from Roy’s in-laws’ home, where they’ve gone for a visit.
The night of the jalsa, a singer especially summoned from Murshidabad is singing, while a storm rages outside.
Bishwambar Roy, though he sits with his guests for a while and dutifully listens to the singer, is abstracted, worrying about Khoka. Worrying about his wife, too, but more than that, worrying about his only son, on whom he dotes.
Eventually, Bishwambar Roy grows so restless, he excuses himself and leaves the jalsaghar. As he goes down the staircase, the singer continues to sing… and outside, under a lightning-filled sky, Bishwambar Roy steps out—to be told, by a panting servant who comes running, that there has been a disaster: the boat in which Roy’s wife and son were coming was sucked into a whirlpool.
And, before Bishwambar Roy’s horrified eyes, a man comes, bearing Khoka’s corpse in his arms.
That was what shattered Bishwambar Roy, turning him into a recluse who had his servants lock up the jalsaghar, and who himself retreated to the upper floor of his now derelict palace. As time goes by, his steward Taraprasanna (Tulsi Lahiri) is instructed to sell off things. From the richly (relatively) decorated corridors and rooms of the earlier mansion, we come to this: a corridor with one lone statue—and that, too, dusty and draped with a rag—in which a stray dog sleeps. A mansion gone to ruin, like its master. Forgotten, dying.
The only two assets Bishwambar Roy has hung on to are his elephant Moti and his horse Toofan—and those, because they were Khoka’s favourites. In memory of Khoka, these animals are still there, still cared for.
Then, one day, out of the blue, a car draws up at the palace, and Mahim Ganguli—now less flattering, less out to please than he once was—alights. He’s come to invite Bishwambar Roy for an important event: it is his son’s uponayon or thread ceremony, and there’s going to be not just the religious ritual, but also a grand party—and a jalsa. Mahim Ganguli has hired the famous kathak dancer Krishna Bai (Roshan Kumari, who went on to do choreography in several Hindi films in later years, including Gopi, Lekin and Sardari Begum) to perform.
Bishwambar Roy declines. He does not move out of his palace these days; Mahim Ganguli should know that. But when Ganguli has left, Bishwambar Roy steps out and looks towards Moti, standing far away on the riverbank… and Ganguli’s truck, driving past and obscuring Bishwambar Roy’s view of his elephant, makes him take a sudden decision. He will not go to Mahim Ganguli’s, no; but he will host a jalsa to rival Ganguli’s. To exceed Ganguli’s, to show that upstart that there is a difference between merely being moneyed and having an illustrious pedigree.
Based on a short story by Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Jalsaghar was made by Ray to compensate for the flop that Aparajito had proved to be. Ray had been looking for a story that was already popular in Bengal (and Bandyopadhyay’s Jalsaghar was); plus, he wanted a film that was conducive to the incorporation of song and dance, two elements that would help make cinema, at least for Indian audiences, more commercially popular.
The result was Jalsaghar. Not immediately the unqualified success Ray had hoped it would be—it received mostly poor reviews, even though it won the Presidential Award for Best Film—but, in the long run, a film which has gained in stature. A film that is a haunting, memorable glimpse into a man’s inability to let go of something that is already long gone…
What I liked about this film:
And, before I go any further, let me say that there actually wasn’t anything I didn’t like about Jalsaghar.
What I liked encompassed most of the film and its components. The mood, the setting, the acting, the music, the story: everything fits together perfectly.
To begin with, the setting, the mouldering old colonial palace which is Bishwambar Roy’s home. It is the very embodiment of neglect: the corridors lonely and dusty, the bricks on the roof unplastered, the paint peeling. (The film, interestingly, was shot at a palace called Nimtita Rajbari, in Nimtita near Murshidabad—Nimtita Rajbari having coincidentally once been the home of Upendra Narayan, on whom Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay had based the character of Bishwambar Roy).
Then, there’s Chhabi Biswas as Bishwambar Roy. This is a superb performance, of a role that requires more expression than dialogue: a lot of what Bishwambar Roy expresses is in his features. The way his eyes cloud over with dismay when he looks into the dusty mirror hanging in the newly-reopened jalsaghar; the veiled-with-politeness contempt when he listens to Mahim Ganguli talk about his new car; the brooding and loneliness and quiet despair as he sits, all alone, with only a glass of sherbet and his hookah beside him on the roof. Chhabi Biswas is restrained, believable and very real through it all.
And, there’s the music, which was composed by Ustad Vilayat Khan and featured greats such as Bismillah Khan and Begum Akhtar (who also appears onscreen as the singer of the first song in the film, Bhar-bhar aaye). I am a complete novice when it comes to Hindustani classical music, but I did love this song, as well as the brilliant Miya ki malhar, sung by Salamat Ali.
The third performance in the film begins with a singer, before the focus shifts completely to the kathak dancer: Roshan Kumari is simply fabulous.
To end this post, a comparison of Ray’s film with the short story on which it was based. I read an English translation of Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay’s Jalsaghar in 14 Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and watching the film, was struck by how good an adaptation this is. The original story had a different end, and took a somewhat different route to get there, but the essence of the story is retained: a zamindar tries, desperately and well beyond his means, to cling onto the prestige that is the only thing left to him.
One of the subtle, yet important, changes that Ray makes is in the character of Bishwambar Roy himself. In Bandyopadhyay’s story, Bishwambar Roy comes across not merely as a man extremely proud of his lineage and trying to hold on to it even if it drives him bankrupt, but a man to whom that is of paramount importance. In the film, Ray gives Bishwambar Roy subtle shades of humanity: his relationship with his wife, for instance, is one that allows her to joke with him and pull his leg now and then; and his obvious affection—even devotion to—his son Khoka, makes him a more likeable man. The Bishwambar Roy of the written story I did not sympathize with; Chhabi Biswas’s Bishwambar Roy was a man I did not like for his arrogance and pride, but whom I could not also help feeling sorry for, in a way.
Highly, highly recommended.