Monday, July 18, 2011

Washed Away

The first time I ever heard of Satyajit Ray was in 1992, when he was given the Lifetime Achievement Oscar (shortly before his death, as it turned out). All I remember from that part of the Oscars is the clip reel of Ray's films, and that they all looked so very strange to me. The name stuck in my head, anyway, firmly enough that when I purchased Salman Rushdie's essay collection Imaginary Homelands some time later, I skipped down the contents page to read his piece on Satyajit Ray. The Rushdie piece is really a review of Andrew Robinson's book Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, but like many a book critic before him, Rushdie uses the book in question as an excuse to talk about that book's subject (I remember a review of a biography of Ogden Nash that included one sentence about the book under review, and everything else was about how much the reviewer knew about Ogden Nash). And in fairness, Rushdie is very interesting on the topic, or was to a total Ray novice such as myself. In the essay, Rushdie makes a big deal about Ray's fantasy films, such as The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, and the relative dismissal, on a global-cinema scale, of those films as compared to the naturalistic work, like Pather Panchali, that made Ray famous in international film circles.

All of this I found very interesting, and Rushdie's praise of the fantasy films that have been forgotten about outside of Ray's homeland really strengthened my desire to check out these movies. But of course part of the whole deal about Satyajit Ray is that his films are strangely unavailable, at least on video, in the US. What releases there have been have been sporadic and inconsistent, so it's long been believed that It Was About Damn Time somebody got on the ball here. And so they have, at least tentatively, with the Criterion release of Ray's The Music Room from 1958.

The Music Room takes as its theme a very popular one among serious artists, both foreign and domestic, and that is the passing of one type of society into another, modern world, about which the artist is thoroughly ambivalent (in America, we might have something about "Why aren't there any cowboys anymore?"). However, it is simply the way of the world that some societies will seem more exotic to Western eyes than others, and India is quite exotic for most of us. As Claude Sautet points out in one of the extras on the Criterion disc, one of Ray's great accomplishments in The Music Room is the way he first exposes the viewer to, and then eases them into, this exotic world. The India of The Music Room looks like a blasted land, with dry earth stretching out around the palatial home of our protagonist Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) -- this is a surreal image, reminiscent of something from J. G. Ballard, but before Ballard got there himself.

In fact, The Music Room repeatedly, but subtly, tips off Ray's interest in the fantastic. The story is basic, as most stories of this kind are -- a man once rich and powerful, when the world ran in a certain way, now finds those riches and that power draining away as the world begins to run in a different way. But Ray brings shadows and eerily dimming lights, spiders crawling on paintings or drowning in alcohol, in other words strange, near-fantastic imagery, into his depiction of this dissolution. Meanwhile, much is made in the film of the land Roy used to have and what has happened to it. We're told it has been destroyed by the rising waters, but where is the water? Even a wrecked boat, which figures into the film in numerous ways but is only seen once, is, when it finally appears, stuck on dry land. Forget modernity -- water has destroyed Roy's life, and then it disappeared. What little water we see appears calm, harmless, remote.

But that's not all, of course. In The Music Room, Ray manages to do a lot of things while keeping the film surprisingly lean, and among the things he does is showcase Indian music, as Roy's greatest indulgence is holding parties in the titular room, where his rich friends get drunk and musicians and dancers perform. In an interview included on the DVD, Ray says that part of the inspiration for the film was to see if music and dancing could have a place in Indian cinema, which leads me to believe I know even less about Indian cinema than I thought. In any case, The Music Room strikes me, in its focus on realism through the occasional prism of very low-key fantasy imagery, and in the depths of my ignorance, as a perfect starting point for those new to Ray, and a perfect title to begin the flood of Ray films released to video. Which is just my way of saying "More, please."


Ibetolis said...

Hey Bill, I just caught The Music Room about a week back and enjoyed very much what you had to say on Ray's interest in the fantastic and how he gently brings us in to that exotic world.

I certainly double that vote for more please, this was a breathtaking, simple film that one had to stand and applause, it was akin to discovering a rare gem stone in a bag of diamonds, why haven't we been saturated with his work before this?

Of course I've caught Pather Panchali trilogy and as much as I enjoyed them, The Music Room transported me somewhere I wasn't expecting at all.

Thanks for illuminating a must see film and for calling for more of the same.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Ibetolis! And you say "Of course I've caught Pather Panchali trilogy", but I sure haven't. This the first real opportunity I've had to watch one of Ray's films since I stupidly passed up an opportunity to watch DEVI in college. After seeing THE MUSIC ROOM, I'm kicking myself.

Ibetolis said...

Very persumptious of me to think that everyone has seen the Pather Panchali trilogy now I look at it, so I'll take the opportunity to recommend them instead.

Well, I'm certainly on the hunt for more Ray now and am currently hunting down Charulata which seems to be available on DVD, at least in the UK, as part of a collection of films.

I've done that whole thing of turning down a great film (Cries & Whispers), at college as well, only to really regret it. Thankfully I've put that one right but it did take over 10 years to rectify.