Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Music Room — The Criterion Collection

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Music Room — The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

The Film
Of all the remarkable things about Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room, perhaps the most striking is its sense of interior space. Almost the entire film takes place inside the palace of a feudal lord whose star has all but burned out. Ray captures the diametrically opposed opulence and decay of the place — it’s simultaneously a refuge and a prison for Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), a zamindar whose cultural and political importance has been reduced to nil.

Ray shoots the palace and its contents (a grand chandelier, portraits of ancestors) in ways that make them seem both beautiful and terrifying at different moments. In a film that almost exclusively belongs to Roy, it’s the palace that emerges as the primary supporting character. And inside that palace — the crown jewel of Roy’s existence, a lavish music room where the lord holds concerts and indulges his love of classical Indian music.

As the film begins, we learn that Roy’s once enormous fortune is on the brink of completely evaporating. He also has a new neighbor to deal with — the wealthy and brash moneylender Mahim Ganguli (Gangapada Bose) — who has taken to throwing extravagant music-centered parties of his own.

In a quest to outdo him, Roy organizes events of his own, depleting his last few resources to the dismay of his wife Mahamaya (Padma Devi) and steward Taraprasanna (Tulsi Lahiri). There’s a madness and a selfishness to Roy’s actions, but he’s a subdued, defeated character, more giving in to the inevitability of his decline than actively seeking to destroy himself. Even after he inadvertently causes the death of several characters, he continues to dive headlong into the abyss, accompanied by the music he loves.

The film features a number of lengthy musical interludes, incorporated in a way that was quite unusual for Indian film at the time. Dance and music numbers were common, but generally weren’t integrated into the plot. Here, they’re essential to understanding the person of Biswambhar Roy.

Ray’s film is a subtle, illuminating character study that displays empathy for its main character while remaining ambivalent about his behavior and cultural status. The Music Room is a thoroughly Indian film, with cultural touchstones that Ray apparently thought might make it a tough sell outside of the country. And yet, while those culture-specific elements are prominent, the film has an undeniable universality.

Ray’s gift for making perceptive, sensitive and artifice-free films is clearly seen here. There’s artifice all around Roy in the ornate palace and the fleeting sense of security its music room gives him, but The Music Room penetrates right through all of it to reveal a broken, obsolete, beaten man.

The Blu-ray Disc
The Music Room is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Anyone who’s seen a DVD of any of Ray’s films from this era, all of which have had preservation issues, should be blown away by this transfer, which is astonishing in its level of clarity, sharpness, fine detail and grayscale contrast. The film does retain a not insignificant amount of damage, mostly seen in image pulsation and flicker and fairly constant light scratches throughout, but the film-like look of the transfer and its impressive range of pure whites to deep blacks are far more noticeable. There are some soft shots, but the majority of them are pleasingly sharp. Given the condition of the source materials, this is an impressive restoration and a gorgeous transfer. It should bode very well for the expected Criterion release of Ray’s Apu Trilogy.

Audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural track that is quite limited by its source. Dialogue often has a hollow quality and some of the intermittent English dialogue is quite difficult to understand. Music doesn’t sound too bad, with a little more heft behind it.

Special Features
We get two new interviews, produced exclusively by Criterion: one with filmmaker Mira Nair, who discusses her admiration of the film and briefly, her friendship with Ray, and one with biographer Andrew Robinson, who fills in some of the production history and contrasts the film with the more obviously naturalistic Apu Trilogy, which The Music Room was made in the middle of.
There’s also an excerpt from a 1981 French TV show, where Ray talks about the film with critic Michael Ciment and filmmaker Claude Sautet. The film had recently been released in France, more than 20 years after its original release in India.

The big extra included here is Satyajit Ray, a 1984 documentary made by Shyam Benegal. It begins with Ray directing on the set of his 1984 film The Home and the World, and soon transitions into a long interview with Ray, punctuated by clips from a number of his films. It’s an excellent biographical introduction to the director as well as a chance to get exposed to pieces of his work.
The package also includes a booklet with an essay by critic Philip Kemp, a brief essay by Ray on finding the palace to shoot the film in and a 1986 interview with Ray about the film’s musical elements. A note on the preservation of Ray’s films by the Academy Film Archive is also included.

The Bottom Line
A breathtaking new transfer ensures that even those familiar with this Ray masterwork will likely come to appreciate it in a whole new way.

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