Jalsaghar (1958)

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.

Bishwambar Roy looks out at his elephantA 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.

A dilapidated palace
In the two servants (including the man who looks after the elephant and Bishwambar Roy’s horse, Toofan) and the one steward who are all that remain of what should probably have been a large staff.

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.

The grand mirror in the jalsaghar, in better days...
…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.

... and in worse.
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.

Bishwambar Roy and his wife
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.

Mahim Ganguli comes calling
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.

A performance in the jalsaghar
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.

Khoka's body is brought
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.

A view of the palace, dead and forlorn
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.

The jalsaghar
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).

Inside the long-locked jalsaghar
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.

Chhabi Biswas as Bishwambar Roy
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.

Roshan Kumari in Jalsaghar
There is more to like, to admire. The symbolism I mentioned at the beginning of this post; the cinematography; the overall treatment of a very poignant tale—and, of course, the story itself.

Comparisons, comparisons:

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.

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30 thoughts on “Jalsaghar (1958)

  1. Yet as Wikipedia says, it won:
    National Film Awards[9]
    1959 – All India Certificate of Merit for the Second Best Feature Film
    1959 – National Film Award for Second Best Feature Film in Bengali
    The film was entered into the 1st Moscow International Film Festival.[10]

  2. Madhu,
    Jalsaghar is one of my two most favourite Ray films, the other being Charulata. I liked even the pride and arrogance of Chhabi Biswas, because one could see his painful efforts at self-denial of the change. He tries to comfort himself that they may come in money, but they can never have the same ‘class’. I remember a scene when he is told of an invite from the Ganguly’s, and he goes to great lengths to find out the manner in which the invite was delivered. When he exclaims, ‘so they have now started sending invitations through a messenger’ – rather than coming personally – you feel sad and sympathise with his pride.

    Congratulations for a very nicely written review.

    AK

    • Thank you, AK – I’m glad you liked the review! And, we share something in common: along with Jalsaghar, my other favourite Satyajit Ray movie is Charulata (though I should add a caveat: there are many of his films I haven’t seen yet).

      That’s an interesting example you give of Bishwambar Roy’s way of thinking… yes, one can understand that pride. It’s as if, since he really has nothing left now, at least he can hold on to his pride. Reminded me somewhat, in some ways, of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam.

  3. I have been planning for so long to watch this movie, but unfortunately still haven’t had the opportunity.
    Should mend this mistake soon!
    Thanks for the reminder through this beautifully written review.

    • Yes, Harvey, you must watch this film! I had it lying around for a long time too and kept telling myself I should watch it – and then when I finally did watch it, I ended up cursing myself for not having watched it earlier.

      Do, and whenever you do, let me know what you think of it.

  4. Thanks Madhu for this perceptive review of a much beloved movie, in which underground forces can be seen to rage and wreak their havoc, despite appearances and attempts to keep them up. One could probably read the movie in terms of how emptiness sucks at fullness, how the void underneath destroys the surface and finally engulfs it totally.

    • Beautifully put, Yves. “how the void underneath destroys the surface and finally engulfs it totally.” – yes, how very, very true. No matter how hard one may try to struggle, there’s a certain inevitability about that.

  5. One of my favourite of Ray’s films, even if it wasn’t as acclaimed as some of the others. It was a sad film, made all the more so by the fact that Bishwambar Roy is partly the architect of his own downfall. And yet one can sympathise (even if one cannot empathise) with a man’s need to hold on to his pride when all else is lost. Your review is a fitting tribute to a great film. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Anu! I’m glad you liked the review. And yes, Bishwambar Roy (he reminded me in some ways of Rehman’s character in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, minus the obvious debuachery) is pretty much the architect of his own downfall. But, as both you and AK point out, the man’s need to hold on to his pride is perhaps what redeems his character somewhat. That, and the way Chhabi Biswas plays him. Honestly, reading the story, I didn’t like Bishwambar Roy one bit. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but sympathise with him: so lonely, so alone, trying so hard to hold on to the one thing that is still left…

  6. Wonderful review, Madhu. This is one of the Ray movies I have watched and what a movie it is. Chhabi Biswas is exemplary as Bishwambar Roy. It is a sad movie, and you do end up sympathising with Biswas’s portrayal. Thank you!

    • For once, no ‘WDIGTT’, Harini? ;-) I’m glad you’ve already seen Jalsaghar, and like it – it is a brilliant movie. And sad, though somehow the entire tone of the film is such that I cannot envisage another end – it seemed to me as if this was the best end there could be.

  7. Madhu, thanks for this very nice review of an excellent film. I agree with you in that there is nothing I could dislike about Jalsaghar. I haven’t seen many Satyajit Ray films – maybe a handful (or less), and excerpts from several more – but from what I have seen, Jalsaghar is my favorite. I thought it was quite moving, and so well filmed and well put together throughout.

    You’d think that after seeing Jalsaghar a few years ago, I would have looked into Satyajit Ray’s films much more. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I looked much more into the dances and history of Roshan Kumari. Now, that is an interesting dancer with some interesting history and connections! She was great, too, but the Kathak scene in Jalsaghar would not have been quite so great if it weren’t for the direction and filming.., And that’s why it seems to be widely regarded as the best dance scene in Indian cinema. (It would be tough for me to say that for certain, but I wouldn’t argue with the idea a whole lot, either). By the way, after I blogged about her a little, a couple of her students wrote to me, and it seems she is still teaching dance, even today (kind of like Kamala Lakshman).

    One of her students put together this page about her, which is pretty good:

    http://muktajoshi.com/myguru.html

    • I must admit I haven’t seen as much Satyajit Ray as I’d like to have, but of all that I’ve seen, Jalsaghar is the best. Charulata is nearly at the same level, though the freeze-frame end of that is something I don’t care for. Another film I do want to see is Mahanagar, simply because the story is so good; I’m sure Ray must have done a superb job of adapting it.

      Thank you for that link, Richard – especially as it gave me a bit of trivia I hadn’t known: that Roshan Kumari is Zohrabai Ambalewali’s daughter! Wow. That had me grinning with satisfaction, trivia hound that I am. :-)

      • I’m glad that you like that trivia as much as I do! :) I had actually learned about Roshan Kumari being Zohrabai’s daughter sometime before I saw it (and I was delighted to learn that, too)… I also read that Zohrabai chose to retire from playback singing mainly to help her daughter build her dancing career. (A few sources said this, including Cineplot.)

        There’s another very interesting piece of trivia mentioned on that Web site, which I discussed with Mel, who is someone who contributed a lot of information about Cuckoo to my blog (and has blogged about Cuckoo extensively, himself)… If you look at the list of her teachers, you’ll see that the first one mentioned is Shri K.S. Moray… “Moray” also happened to be the last name of Cuckoo. And Mel deduced, mostly based on some information that he got from Tom (who had gotten the information from Edwina), that it is very likely K.S. Moray was at one time Cuckoo’s husband. :)

        • Ah. I didn’t know about KS Moray, though the first thing that popped into my head when I read that name in your comment was that Cuckoo was Cuckoo Moray. I hadn’t known her husband was also a dancer. Any idea if he worked in films too?

          • Hi, Madhu. I realized during the past month that I had failed to answer a question of yours about Cuckoo’s (likely) husband, but I was looking for the right information and the right link and a number of things came up – including other posts of yours that I wanted to comment on. :)

            Anyway, I was brought back to this question tonight when Mel sent me some more interesting information on the subject…

            I don’t know if Cuckoo’s (likely) husband danced in any films, but he was a choreographer. Mel had said that he saw a bio of him that listed him for some pretty obscure films. But just now, Mel sent me information that Mr. Moray (or Dr. Moray) was the choreographer for a 1944 Shantaram film, Parbat Pe Apna Dera.

            We had had this conversation about Cuckoo in a few different posts, and I also wanted to look back at them to see which ones to recommend if you wanted to see more about this subject, yourself.

            But actually, as I was reminded just now, almost all the information about K.S. Moray on my blog can be seen in the comments under the post that I’m linking to below – which also has links within it to the other Cuckoo-related posts. (Oh, and by the way, I just remembered that the subject of the post for which I am now writing this long comment is Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar. A bit of a tangent, I guess. LOL But that happens sometimes.)

            https://roughinhere.wordpress.com/2014/12/07/discussion-info-and-great-pics-related-to-the-earliest-appearances-of-cuckoo/

            • Thank you, Richard! I have heard of Parbat Par Apna Dera, though I’ve never seen it. I’m off to have a look at your post, now.

              And, who cares about tangents? ;-) The sort of tangents discussions on this blog go off on, one would think this one – which at least has the dance connection – is really quite pertinent here.

      • Yves, thanks for the recommendations. Well, I know about Pather Panchali and have been meaning to see it one of these days. I’ll look for Agantuk, too. (I just looked it up online a little bit, and I see it was his last film. So, it would be interesting to watch these in a double feature. :) )

  8. Very good review. Jalsaghar is one of my favorite Ray films too. I hope you watched the Criterion blu-ray edition – it has been beautifully restored. According to Ray himself, he was planning to make a musical since his previous films had been box office disasters. He happened to like this story but when he developed his screenplay it turned into a very serious affair. Again, according to Ray, Ustad Imrat Khan (Vilayat Khan’s younger brother and assistant music director for this film) had a better sense of film music composition than his elder brother since he was an inveterate film buff and was able act as as a go-between between the director and the music composer. Another interesting fact : When Ray showed pictures of the old zamindar haveli to Tarashankar (the author was still alive then) he remarked that it was on seeing this exact mansion in Nimtita that he had been inspired to write the story.

    • Thank you! And yes, the edition I watched was the Criterion one, and it was very well restored.

      I have mentioned in my post the fact that the Nimtita Rajabari had been the home of the man on whom Tarashankar Bandopadhyay based the story, but I hadn’t known that anecdote. Thanks for sharing it!

  9. Nowadays I am really irregular, aren’t I? You know me by now, I am referring to my love for trivia. Here is a bit about this film, once in an interview on Doordarshan Ray said that he did not want Biswas to wear that elaborate turban you see him wearing in the film, he is seen wearing it in some scenes. Biswas insisted finally Ray gave up and let Biswas have his way.

    • Good to see you back, Shilpi, even if irregular! :-) And thank you for that anecdote. 14 Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray has a couple of other interesting bits of trivia for this, in Ray’s tribute to Chhabi Biswas. He talks about how Biswas, being used to theatre (and the heavy makeup required in it) turned up on the sets with his face plastered with makeup, which he staunchly refused to have removed. Also, for the role of Bishwambar Roy, he needed to learn horse riding, since that is one of the protagonist’s passions. Biswas dutifully went everyday for riding lessons, though he didn’t make too much progress. In the final film, there’s actually only one shot of him on a horse – he’s dismounting.

            • Hehe! Yes, that’s there. But also, perhaps, something to do with the fact that Ray primarily made Bangla films – and any interviews I did watch in the good old days (I’ve not watched much TV since about ’97) were all of Hindi film stars. In fact, the only interviews I recall watching are the ones hosted by Tabassum on Phool Khile Hain Gulshan-Gulshan.

              • I think I have mentioned this before, once during an international film festival that was held in India, veteran journalist Amita Malik hosted a discussion between Ray, Kurosawa and Elia Kazan. Later on in life I remember reading an interview of Amita Malik where she regretted that Doordarshan had not kept the tapes (or had perhaps misplaced them) of that timeless discussion after all these 3 were greats of world cinema. I had the good fortune to watch it but at that time I was very young and hardly have any memory of what was being discussed in the programme,

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