by Drew Martin
No wonder no one calls me anymore to hang out. My idea of a good time is to watch a 1958 Indian movie.
I just finished watching Jalsaghar (The Music Room), It is a classic black and white Indian Bengali film about the fall of an aristocrat, the rise of a self-made man, and the music that they compete to host in their music rooms. We never see the neighbor's modern house with electricity. We only know that he is the son of a money-lender, has cars, and (my favorite line) can play tabla in a pinch. [I wish I had neighbors who could play tabla in a pinch.]
For a Western audience, the film has elements of Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard. And it doesn't really matter what the aristocrat is smoking in his hookah all the time, his greatest drug is music. It intoxicates him so much that he ruins his family and their fortune to hear it in his music room. He sells off his wife's jewelry to celebrate his son's initiation ceremony and in the final scenes he gives all that is left in his family vault to a young dancer. (Pictured here and in the video clip below). But at that point his life is already ruined: his wife and son die in a storm at sea after he sends for them to be present at an impromptu performance he decides to host in his music room.
The film is a little obvious with symbolism: bugs, reflections, and light but they are more dramatic flashes than overused motifs.
Even though I am a big fan of classical Indian music and that would have been enough of a draw to this movie for me, it was the title The Music Room that really caught my attention especially because of the tie here of music to intoxication. Like much of the arts in America, music has a very practical side to it: it motivates us, and makes us dance athletically, and sing along. It is a cathartic storytelling and is about making us feel more powerful. Even classical music, which one might sit back to enjoy without interruption has an uplifting, and pure connotation to it. In this film, however, music is like hashish or opium.