The Music Room ★★★★½

Part of the 2014 30 countries challenge, Film #16 - India

It probably doesn't have to be said, but The Music Room is not Bollywood. There is music and dancing, but for the first time in an Indian film, director Satyajit Ray integrated the music and dancing scenes into the film's structure rather than having them appear haphazardly. There are three such scenes, all held in the titular Music Room of Biswambhar Roy's decaying palace. The feudal landlord loves to throw a party, even when this means having to sell of the last of his wife's jewels. He invites the best of the best singers and dancers and musicians to play, in part because he enjoys the music so much, but more to flatter his vanity at being known as the most distinguished and the best host of such soirées. He may not have the money, but he has the blood, the blood of a long lineage of aristocratic land owners. His palace may be crumbling, his nouveau riche money-lending neighbour may have modern amenities like electricity and a car, but Biswanbhar Roy has taste and panache and by george if he has to lose everything he will lose everything throwing such parties.

The lovely thing about this film is that Roy isn't just a vain aristocrat. Writer/director Satyajit Ray isn't out to portray him as a one-note uppity landowner. Roy is oftentimes childish and manipulative and altogether too wrapped up in his ancestry, but he is also fair and kind and lonely. He genuinely cares about things, perhaps the wrong things at times, but he is never such a caricature that we can't empathize with him. The director does all he can to avoid black and white characters, and melodrama as well, both of which he despises. In the book on which the film is based, the dancer who appears in the last musical segment was Roy's mistress. For the film, Ray removed that relationship to avoid any kind of melodrama. He's my kind of director.

The film is photographed in beautiful black and white with beautiful landscapes. Not postcard type of landscapes, but real ones that fit in with the theme of decay. A single very old elephant walking about a useless field that had previously been flooded. A white horse that has seen better days, who is the only horse on the estate. An elderly butler who is excited to add a flower to his master's drink because the flowers are in bloom. Everything about the film shows decaying aristocracy, but it also doesn't miss a beat to poke fun at its replacement, the modern self-made moneyed man.

I'll confess that I am not the biggest fan of the sitar. The first musical number was a bit too much sitar and too long. My heart sank a little when a 2nd concert was to take place, and again it was a bit jarring to my ears but by the halfway mark I was able to admire the skill of the singer and the beautiful wailing that fit so perfectly with the film's themes. The final and last concert was utterly amazing. The dancer is so skilled that any doubts I may have had about loving a musical number in this film were gone. The film did the impossible. It isn't like I now adore the sitar, but The Music Room did manage to make me appreciate and look forward to seeing those musical numbers again. I never would have thought that possible.

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