Not Bollywood: Satyajit Ray's THE MUSIC ROOM

Director Satyajit Ray separated himself from mainstream Indian cinema with PATHER PANCHALI, which premiered at Cannes (at midnight, during a party for Akira Kurosawa) in 1956. Still, several influential critics made it to the screening and championed the film’s originality and vision. It was completely unlike other Indian films in that there was no melodramatic story, no exaggerated acting and no arbitrary interpolation of song and dance episodes (aka Bollywood).

Just two years later, Ray made what many critics consider his finest work, THE MUSIC ROOM. Now, with the status of world famous filmmaker (a rarity in India), he felt he could include both singing and dancing in his work, not as irrelevant interludes, but as an integral and essential part of the action. Ray later wrote, “Here was a dramatic story which could be laced legitimately with music and dancing, and distributors loved music and dancing. But here, too, was scope for mood, for atmosphere, for psychological exploration.”

The film, which is set in the 1920s, is about Huzur Biswambhar Roy, an aging feudal lord with a dwindling fortune he spends giving lavish parties to compete with his nouveau riche neighbor, Ganguli. Each party includes a famous musician, who plays for the enjoyment of a roomful of lounging, hookah-smoking men. Ray would later compose the scores for his films himself, but in THE MUSIC ROOM we get a glimpse at some of the leading Indian musicians, many of whom influenced Wes Anderson’s THE DARJEELING LIMITED, which begins with the same song Ray uses for the intro in THE MUSIC ROOM.

Nowadays, you don’t hear much about Ray unless it’s a brief mention in a larger piece about Anderson, but now Criterion is giving the eminent Indian filmmakers his due with the release of THE MUSIC ROOM, an effort that wouldn’t be possible without The Academy Film Archive’s Satyajit Ray Preservation Project, which is working to restore all of Ray’s twenty-eight features and seven shorts. For this particular DVD release, the new high-def digital transfer was created from an original 35 mm fine-grain master positive. “Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manual removed.” The soundtrack, too, was remastered to remove “clicks, thumps, hiss and hum.” The DVD also includes some exceptional features, like footage from the 1981 roundtable with Ray and French critics and directors as well as the 1984 feature-length doc SATYAJIT RAY.