I was already in love with Satyajit Ray’s movies when I watched Jalsaghar for the first time. No other movie by this great master was able to cast a spell on me like this one did. I was spellbound not only by the gravity of Chabi Biswas’s performance as the Zamindar willing to risk his last penny for his pride and love of music, but also by the thoughtful and brilliant use of Indian Classical music in the context of the story.
Very few movies in the Indian film history have managed to blend Indian Classical music with the story so beautifully without ever unintentionally suggesting the music to be dispensable on occasions. Ray, together with his gifted lead actor forces us to enjoy the music at one time and pulls us back into the story at the other on his own will. Ray succeeds at that with the help of elegant camerawork by Subrata Mitra. The camera movement is in correlation with the tempo of the music. It neither moves quickly nor is it always static. The dolly moves with the pace of the songs and the infrequent cuts never distract us from the music. Sitar maestro Vilayat Khan weaves magic into the background score while Begum Akhtar’s thumri ‘Bhar bhar aayi mori ankhiyan piya bin’ deserves a special mention as it also features Bismillah Khan on screen.
Jalsaghar is based on a short story of the same name by Tarashankar Banerjee. When Ray was at Lalgola, struggling to find a Palace for the movie that best suited his vision, an old man at a tea shop suggested him to visit the Nimtita Rajbari of the Choudhury family located about 80 km from Murshidabad. Ray decided to give it a try. Little did Ray know that the late Upendra Narayan Choudhury, who belonged to the Choudhury lineage was the source of inspiration to Tarashankar for his short story. Just like the central character of Jalsaghar, Upendra Narayan too was fond of music, and had a music room in the palace.
In Jalsaghar, Chabi Biswas plays Bishambar Roy, a Zamindar (landlord) struggling to maintain his family prestige and status while playing ignorant to his dwindling economic condition. He genuinely loves music and hosts musical spectacles in his music room. Bishambar is unwilling to compromise with his dignity and face reality, even after the government abolishes the Zamindari system. A trait that ultimately becomes responsible for his downfall. Something that even his loyal servants can see, but he refuses to accept.
I have seen all the movies by Ray and have literally memorized them graphically and for me, Jalsaghar remains his best work. Certain visuals in our life grab on to our memory and we cannot delete them from our mind regardless of how hard we try. The visual of a hookah-smoking partially shadowed Bishambar Roy on the balcony, with the camera zooming in gently towards him, is one such visual. That single image says it all. His Zamindari legacy fading away right in front of his eyes. The mighty mansion and his inherited reputation, all failing to protect his crumbling authority. The visual brings all these facts right onto the surface.
The art direction by Bansi Chandragupta is splendid. Much of the aristocracy has been established by the thoughtful placement of royal furniture. The Chandelier in the music room, the huge decorative wooden bed and even the tiger skin under the feet of Bishambar Roy play a part to remind us of his royal heritage. It would be inadequate if we look at these elements individually. We must see them collectively to understand how the art direction has been used as the film progressively shows the decline of the nobleman. The palace, once bright and vibrant, wears out tragically to give us a feel of utter desolation, much like the situation of the Zamindar. Bright rooms at the beginning are replaced by darker ones after Bishambar Roy loses his family. The screen shows us an eroded part of land when a feeble Bishambar Roy walks out to meet his beloved horse, a tactic that may have been used to emphasize Bishambar’s declining health. Ray used all these elements skillfully in the aid of his story.
A year ago when I found an old DD Bangla interview of Satyajit Ray where he speaks about his filmmaking, he mentioned that while filming Jalsaghar Chabi Biswas insisted on doing his own makeup. Ray being new and Biswas being a big star, Ray had to allow to Biswas to do so. Later in that interview, Ray points out that it left blemishes on Biswas’s face and Ray could not do anything about it. Ray was such a perfectionist that he was regretting about something which was hard to notice even for a trained eye.
Jalsaghar is not a flawless film. Problems are more of a technical nature than aesthetic one. For example, in certain shots the camera shakes during zooming out. There are few points where the pace gets slow. Particularly the final Kathak sequence on Padmashree Roshan Kumari in the music room. It could have been cut little short. But the masterly use of the mirror in that sequence makes up for it. The mirror covers the back of the dancer when she faces the camera and covers her front when she turns. It’s important to mention here that the music room with the mirror was not a part of the original palace but was built in a studio. So the role of the mirror in that Kathak sequence could not have been a coincidence.
In the final scenes where a drunk Bishambar Roy is haunted by the dying candles and cries out to Ananta. Ananta points out that the candles are supposed to die now as the day has arrived. It is obvious that Ray is suggesting here that the old must make way for the new. A symbolism that may suggest the fall of our protagonist to make way for the wealthy Mahim Ganguly. This is further emphasized in a different way in the last shot of the film where the camera pans left to show the Zamindar’s turban on the ground while the sun rises up in the sky.
Upon its release in India in 1958, Jalsaghar received poor reviews. But it turned out to be a critical and commercial success upon its release in the West few years later. It sure is one of those movies where Ray’s mastery of cinema is in full swing. 54 years after its release, it still serves as a valuable lesson in storytelling. Watch it for Ray and the performance of Chabi Biswas.
Thanks to the Criterion Collection for restoration of the film and its conversion into HD video format. Thus, allowing us to watch the masterpiece without missing any details.