An eerie, out-of-this-world image opens The Music Room (a film that is otherwise firmly rooted in the terrestrial). Within a deep, black space floats a glittering, gleaming chandelier – less a decorative element than some sort of alien spacecraft. It’s mesmerizing and casts a spell, as does much of the movie.
That same chandelier hangs – a bit more explicably – in the beloved music room of Huzur Biswamghar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), a wealthy Indian landowner. And it similarly casts a spell on him. A devotee of fine music, Roy previously enjoyed a life of languid ease and lavish concert parties – until the money ran out. Now alone in his palatial estate, aside from two loyal and doting servants, he ponders the chandelier and the glories of the past.
The Music Room, directed by Satyajit Ray, is in many ways a companion piece to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, which would be made only a few years later. Both are mid-century odes to men whose time has passed, partly due to the march of history and partly due to their own unwillingness to adapt. Burt Lancaster’s Prince Don Fabrizio Salina would surely understand Biswas’ Roy, who sits in an opulent chair overlooking his barren estate, sipping on his daily sherbet as if the world still had time for such leisurely habits.
Just when you think you have the movie pegged, it imbues Roy with a certain tragic nobility.
If The Music Room seems a bit harsher about the ways of the past, perhaps that’s because embracing modernity was a central theme of Ray’s Apu trilogy, which he was on the verge of finishing at the time of this film’s release. There, the old ways were rural and impoverished, but still viewed with affection; modernity was simply the pathway to a better life. Here, Ray seems to verge on contempt for tradition – at least as it’s embodied by this self-indulgent aristocrat.
Or is it that simple? Just when you think you have the movie pegged, The Music Room imbues Roy with a certain tragic nobility. Roused from his daze by the music coming from a neighbor’s estate, Roy decides to scrape together what money he can find to throw one last party and concert. He not only pulls it off, but also manages to upstage his uncouth, nouveau riche neighbor by honoring the guest of honor in the proper, traditional way. (The movie also suggests Roy appreciates her art much more deeply.)
By the time The Music Room reaches its somber end, it – and we – have developed an ambivalence toward Roy and the traditions he represents. With a haunting return to that chandelier, whose flames slowly begin to die out, the movie concludes not as a condemnation, but an elegy.