Jalsaghar: How Satyajit Ray, Chhabi Biswas crafted this haunting tale of moral erosion

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Feb 11, 2018 12:22:19 IST

Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was in May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

After the box office failure of ‘Aparajito’ – the second film in the Apu trilogy – Satyajit Ray was in desperate need to make a hit film. It was then that he decided to study the mind of the average Bengali middle class movie going audience to understand what they usually looked for in a film viewing experience. Song and dance – he figured – and a dash of comedy. He made up his mind and decided to cater to both these demands of the audience. In 1958, he made two films – the excellent comedy Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone), and Jalsaghar (The Music Room) – a film richly filled with songs and dances.

Jalsaghar is one of Ray’s many commentaries on the subject of old versus new. While in some of his later films – especially the City trilogy – he shows the new in poor light and hails the age-old values and belief system, in his earlier films like Jalsaghar and Devi, he describes what happens when we are either unable or unwilling to let go of old, archaic and rotting rules and norms to make room for the new.

Chhabi Biswas in a still from Jalsaghar

Chhabi Biswas in a still from Jalsaghar

Jalsaghar is based on a popular short story written by Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay. Aged zamindar Bishwambhar Roy spends his days in his dilapidated palace on the banks of the river. His days of glory are over, thanks to the river, which is slowly swallowing his land and closing in on his mansion, and which has also claimed the lives of his wife and the son he loved to death – in a boating accident on a stormy monsoon night. When he was a young man, the irrepressible Bishwambhar Roy used to roll in materialistic pleasures. Night after night, he used to drown himself in wine, attending music and dance recitals that he himself used to set up in the music room of his palace. Some of the best artists of the country used to come and perform for him, earning their inaam from a true connoisseur of the arts. But his passion for music and dance was only surpassed by his pride, dangerously bordering on vanity. The fact that he was the Raja of the land was something that he always held dear and never missed an opportunity to remind others of.

As the land around him kept getting washed away by the advancing river, his coffers began to run dry. Unfazed, he continued to sell off ornaments and other items from his family heirlooms, just so that he could keep up his stately lifestyle. After the death of his wife and son, the music room remains shut for four years, but when a young self-made businessman organises a musical soiree in his own house in the village, Bishwambhar Roy’s pride is hurt, his blue blood begins to boil, and he spends whatever little he has in his treasury to arrange one final recital in his palace’s Jalsaghar.

A tragedy of epic proportions, the film is a haunting tale of moral erosion, more than anything else. The erstwhile zamindar knows very well that his days are over, that the privy council has decided to take control of his properties, abolishing the practice of zamindari forever. But he is never fully able to come to terms with this bitter fact. Instead of consolidating his property to make the right investment decisions to secure his future, he squanders whatever little remains on a passion he cannot give up. Riddled with the guilt of rolling in the pleasures of music while his family’s boat capsised, he stayed away from music and dance for several years. But soon enough, his ego got the better of him, and he returns to the music room to prove a point – a point utterly trivial in the context of things happening around him.

Veteran Bengali actor Chhabi Biswas plays the role of Bishwambhar Roy with such regal charm that it is almost impossible to imagine anyone else in that role. With his performance, Biswas is able to pull off the unthinkable – he can make us feel sorry for him, despite our knowing that what he is doing is sheer foolishness. It’s not an easy task to do, the role could have easily become a caricature – half-baked and unconvincing. But Biswas is the perfect antihero – a sick mind riddled with addiction and narcissism. And yet, we love him for what he is. He is vain, but not cruel. He opens the doors of his palace so that the entire village can take shelter from the wrath of the river. He loves his family and is extremely fond of his stately rides – the stallion Toofan, and the majestic elephant Moti. In a heart-wrenching scene in the second half of the film, when a young and upstart money-lender comes to invite him to his house-warming ceremony, he politely refuses to go. While the businessman is finishing his sherbet before leaving, the camera slowly moves towards Bishwambhar Roy’s face. There he sits, the pipe of his hookah in hand, like a true king, keeping up the image, face proud, head held high, although knowing fully well that he was finished forever. It is in that moment that our heart weeps for him. Would this have been possible, had this role been played by anyone other than Chhabi Biswas? We don’t think so. Neither did Ray.

The film boasts of some of the most beautiful song and dance sequences ever shot on film by such artists as Begum Akhtar, Salamat Ali Khan, Roshan Kumari, Ustad Waheed Khan and Bismillah Khan. Seeped in the finery of Thumris, Malhaars and Kathaks, the film becomes one of the finest examples of use of song and dance in Indian cinema. In the final scene of the film, as an inebriated and exhausted Bishwambhar Roy finds the lights of his music room going out one by one, Ray has done what only a mind as fertile in imagination as his could do. He provided an eerie background music to the scene by playing a composition of Finnish composer Johan Julius Sibelius in reverse and combining it with the soul stirring music of Ustad Vilayat Khan! The resulting score, along with the visuals of a frightened Chhabi Biswas running madly around his music room is a treat to watch, and perfectly captures the mood of decline and death.

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.

Updated Date: Feb 12, 2018 21:12:00 IST