I wish I were Indian
I don’t know if Satyajit Ray was actually an apologist for monarchy / aristocracy; what I know of his biography and the Indian political environment of his lifetime suggests not. Nevertheless, if I were asked to name the film most sympathetic to aristocracy ever made, THE MUSIC ROOM would probably be it; certainly it’s on the short list with the likes of THE LEOPARD, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, DEATH IN VENICE (significantly, all four of these films are to-some-extent-tragedies about an aristocracy’s death). Indeed, THE MUSIC ROOM would almost certainly rank among my all-time favorite films if it weren’t for one big honking caveat, and even that is a weakness not of Ray’s film but of myself, which I allude to in this post’s title and will detail later.
THE MUSIC ROOM tells the story of the decline of landed aristocrat Biswambhar Roy, a man whose sole passion is music, even above his land (which the river is threatening, to his uninterest) and his family (one of the few intimate family scenes shows him teaching music to his son). His principal foil is an arriviste neighbor merchant named Ganguly for whom he has nothing but contempt, calling him “the son of a money-lender.” But this man tries to worm his way into the lord’s graces as an equal based on his increasing wealth and “my interest in music too.” (The poor basically don’t exist in THE MUSIC ROOM, shown only as the recipients of alms, first from Roy then from Ganguly.)
It’s impossible and in a sense pointless to ask about this class conflict, “which of the two men and/or the virtues and vices they represent does Ray ‘side with’.” But two questions are meaningful to ask — (1) “whose point-of-view, if anyone’s, does Ray privilege”; and (2) “does, and to what extent, the film contain ‘the aristocratic critique of the bourgeoisie’ and/or ‘the bourgeois critique of the aristocracy.’? And at that level, it’s hardly even a contest.
The riveting opening shot (between THE MUSIC ROOM and DEVI, Ray could make an opening image and music sing with meaning and implication and terror) is of Roy’s chandelier swaying in a pitch-black room. As the camera gets closer, if we’re Westerners who’ve been at all conditioned by 19th and early 20th century works, we are expecting to see the cracks in this Indian golden bowl. But no … the chandelier is never anything other than a symbolically ornate object beyond possible utility. Once the chandelier fades out, Ray fades in with a screen-filling closeup of Roy, made more remarkable by the fact we’re not sure for a second if this is a conventional movie shot or a still photo — absolute stillness, beyond need, beyond becoming. In fact, the film never leaves Roy’s mansion and concentrates entirely on Roy’s memories and reactions. We never actually see Ganguly’s home, though we ARE told it’s every bit as opulent (“the furniture is from the British shop in Calcutta”) and is close enough that you can hear its music and electric generators from Roy’s. In every single scene between Roy and Ganguly, the film’s energy is on Roy’s reaction to Ganguly, either his explicit presence or what he has heard Ganguly is doing. And all of Roy’s interactions with Ganguly — all of them — involve some element of standing on ceremony against this parvenu. He even starts pawning the family jewels rather than turn to a money-lender.
Hard as it may seem to be for 2011 Anglophones to believe, there was once a time when it was possible to see aristocracy as being something other than a mask for selfish domination. Or as having real virtues that will be lost in bourgeois society, the principal one being a sense of vocation, and that is the one thing Ray does not skrimp on here. Vocation is not at all the same thing as employment — a “vocation” is “who you are”; employment is “what you do for money.” Its usage in the Church is one of the few contemporary places it still retains that specific sense (though I believe soldiering has the sense without the v-word) — you join the priesthood or religious life (or the military) to make your life an offering to God and other men (or the country), not for the salary or the perks, i.e., rationalistic advantages. In their very first meeting between Roy and Ganguly, their manner is a pure reflections of who they are, the justice of which is never even broached. Roy tells Ganguly in a very declarative “this is not a negotiation between equals” manner the terms under which he can operate in his province. If you framed it in our political context or didn’t know that aristocrats have always disdained money lenders, you might think Roy was a Wall Street Occupier: “If you’re to operate in the Roy domain, you’ll have to abide by certain rules. Monthly interest cannot exceed one percent; nothing on overdue taxes; no seizure and no lawsuits. You know that.” When Roy responds to an invite from Ganguly, he sends over a servant on a dressed-up elephant, and “as is the custom,” provides the offering of a gold coin on a silver platter, even though he’s already in dire financial straits. And then, for just about the only time in the film, he compromises. Ray, typically, records only the moments of the trip that take place in Roy’s castle. What matters is that Roy’s servants make the trip and at what cost, symbolizing a status change, not what happens when they’re there.
One of the few apparent surface weaknesses in THE MUSIC ROOM is also present in THE LEOPARD. In both cases, the actor who plays the Bourgeois Successor (Paolo Stoppa as Don Calogero in the Visconti and Gangapada Basu as Ganguly in the Ray) comes across as pointlessly crass and vulgar and it can seem like overacting. I suggest that maybe it isn’t “pointless,” since crassness and vulgarity have been a principle critique of bourgeois egalitarianism for the entire period it’s been a meaningful topic (see also Flaubert’s M. Homais and Moliere’s M. Jourdain). After the catastrophe that occurs midway through the film, contempt for Ganguly is really the only thing that can motivate Roy, who seems to do little but lie around sucking on his hookah until Ganguly in some way or another provokes him. When he paces around before the third concert, intended to keep pace with Ganguly, he walks without the cane. Whether it’s inviting the lord to his home, putting on a concert with India’s greatest dancer, or being the first to reward the dancer, Roy sees Ganguly as an existential threat (not a threat to his interests, not at all).
Also consider that in many Western texts, especially the Victorian/Edwardian novel (the aforementioned golden bowl or some of the characters in Forster), aristocrats are portrayed as fops, as poseurs, as brutes or as secret criminals. Ray simply doesn’t do that. Roy is not cruel to his servants and only once openly scolds one, the true test of a man’s character. There are no moments “among” the servants, so either their face loyalty is genuine or its disingenuousness is of no interest.
One of the principle historic justifications for aristocracy — from Plato and Aristotle through Marsilius to Nietzsche and Schumpeter — has been the heroic virtues, which the rationalist bourgeoisie cannot even bring itself to understand as virtues. To the bourgeoisie, indifference to interest and to calculation, a purely authentic lifestyle that is its own justification, and a rejection of low necessity in favor of high ideals such as art and philosophy — these are literally ideas unthinkable, primarily because some form of “utility” becomes the final moral standard. In the particular case of India, the traditional lords like Roy were the patrons of the arts, of classic music — and if you were a lord, that was your calling, higher than one’s self-advantage. All art, Oscar Wilde said, is perfectly useless, and if the standard of virtue is “use” or “tangible advantage,” there is no justification at all for universities or high culture (including watching 50-year-old Indian movies and writing about them). Roy’s love of music is genuine and shown as such, not simply because he’s seen watching it, but because it eventually becomes all-consuming. Roy chooses his ideals and his vocation over his interest and that is why he is admirable. Pauline Kael said the hero is great because he destroys himself, which I would merely amend to, “the hero is great because he is indifferent to his destruction.”
Then there is the film’s portrait of the West, which is slight but telling. Britons never actually appear in THE MUSIC ROOM, but modernity, of which colonialism is a manifestation, does in various ways, and Ray’s near-perfect polarity goes beyond Ganguly/bourgeois and Roy/aristocratic, extending itself to identify the former pair with the West/modernity and the latter with India/tradition. At one point, the sounds of the music from Ganguly’s nearby mansion actually mix with the sounds of his newfangled electric generators, electricity playing the same role in THE MUSIC ROOM that the car does in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. The chandelier we see at the start and intermittently throughout is powered by candles. At the one moment in the film where we hear a recognizable (to me) Western melody, Roy covers up his ears as if he can’t stand to hear this Colonialist patter. Consider also Ray’s use of English, not only the language of the colonial power but the language of modernity (the truck has the word “Ganguly” painted on it in English characters).1 The three contexts in which English is used is telling. First, a servant reads Roy a bank document refusing to extend his credit, saying he is too indebted already (i.e., the replacement of aristocratic sources of wealth with bourgeois sources). Second, the merchant Ganguly declaring proudly that “I am a self-made man, with no pedigree” (ditto). And third, a drunken series of toasts by Roy himself to his ancestors (i.e., an inauthentic gesture of desperation after the die has been cast).
I have to grant that all this description may make THE MUSIC ROOM sound a little obvious. Indeed, Ray is not subtle, not at all. The meaning of the tipped-over model, the bug in the glass, the swaying chandelier, the spider on the painting, the elephant and the truck, “what month is it” are all very very obvious. But Ray wants us to “feel,” I think, and he achieves this with a uniquely deliberate pace to the material, adding the element of time, which is both an aristocratic element in itself (“in those days, they had time for everything,” as the Narrator says in AMBERSONS) and a way to make the point sink in so it doesn’t come across as a cheap, facile bit of foreshadowing. In the shot where a Ganguly company truck drives across a road, kicking up dust that obscures the elephant while Roy takes in the scene, the point is obvious. But time makes the difference between a marinade and a mere sauce. By including Roy as the viewer and by giving the shot so much time to play out the movements of it’s elements, Ray shifts the central point to Roy’s consciousness of what he’s seeing.
There’s also the performance of eminent Bengali stage actor Chhabi Biswas as Roy, who exudes bone-felt aristocratic pride in a way I’m tempted to say no actor today could. At one moment, he sees he has a bug inside a glass full of (I think) wine. As I said, a very easy and potentially cheap metaphor for a bunch of things — the fate of his family in a boat, or “the stink behind the aristocratic facade.” Yet look at how Biswas reacts — he maintains his public poise (it’s at a music performance where there’s also a storm brewing outside and the chandelier from the opening shot has started to sway) while the eyes and the mind go elsewhere without obvious “bug-eyed” or other emoting. To steal a line from the late, great Charles Francois, “it’s the look of a ship that has just realized it’s starting to take on water.” Same thing near the end, when Roy re-opens the years-dormant music room, walks around, takes it all in, and then nonchalantly starts moving his hand to clear off the dusty mirror. The economy of gesture is the key to the performance — Biswas never makes a public gesture of “tornness” or grief or Angst (“what has become of my beloved music room, ye gods!!!”), he just DOES. He’s too proud to lose his cool. When he gets on his knees, it’s not made explicit whether it’s for his music or his family — and the point is it hardly matters. Meanwhile, Subrata Mitra’s camera mimics Roy’s gestures in leisurely lingering over the objects in the room as if to gobble up their beauty as they speak their own history from the dead, like silent witnesses (I’d be curious to know Visconti saw this film before making THE LEOPARD, though obviously Lampedusa’s novel antedates Ray too).
Now to the caveat — simply put, I am not Indian. Or to calibrate that thought more precisely, Indian classical music is a genre I’m just this side of completely ignorant of. This isn’t, as the “9” obviously suggests, fatal to understanding, appreciating and being moved by the drama of THE MUSIC ROOM. But it does limit what I can feel of what I know must be there — as Howard Jones put it in a musical genre I am familiar with “You can feel the cushion, but you can’t have a seat.” To compare the film that is my all-time favorite (and where the use of music is also central), when Kubrick uses Rossini, Gene Kelly, Beethoven, “I Wanna Marry a Lighthouse Keeper,” “Queen Mary’s Funeral” etc., in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the implications and associations are known to me and sink in. THE MUSIC ROOM just doesn’t have that chance to connect because its music is just too foreign to me. When the camera tracks into the chandelier at the start, I’ll go to the mat to say it sounds ominous, but I cannot say for certain it was meant to. To elaborate specifically on the dancing, it was hard for me to tell whether this is a sacred dance or a popular dance. Or is this very distinction foreign to Indian dancing? Or does that distinction exist, but the dance in THE MUSIC ROOM hybridizes the two in a way recognizable to an Indian? Recognizable as blasphemy (Madonna’s use of religious iconography) or as elevation (an Aretha Franklin Gospel album)? Is the way Ray increasingly cuts back and forth between closeups of the dancer’s feet and the faces of the men meant to be sexual, accessibly so or not, or something else (Kael famously read incest undertones into DEVI based on its foot massages)?
Notice I said “limit,” BTW, not “eliminate”; and the Howard Jones lyric I chose was the song’s second line (which metaphor retains some contact with the seat) not the first which is totally exclusionary (“You can look at the menu but you just can’t eat”). Even if it doesn’t quite connect, the musical skill involved in the playing, singing and dancing is plain as day, especially the virtuoso voice of the old man in the second concert we see and the intricate steps of the female dancer in the third. Also, Ray used the music first to underline the drama (the frequent cutaways to the audience and their reactions) or create it from its mere existence; only secondarily was it an entertainment spectacle for its own sake. But that “secondarily” part is not nothing.
1 It may have been clearer to an Indian, but it took me a while (until the appearance of a car) to become certain of when THE MUSIC ROOM was taking place. But the 1920s setting would have been both the eve of decolonization and sufficiently long since its start (the collapse of the Moguls and infiltration of East India Company began early 1700s) for English to have begun to worm its way into India’s native languages.