Perhaps money cannot buy class, but class cannot buy money either.
Approximately 99 minutes.
Lord Biswambhar Roy is a pre-Independence princely landlord of vast tracts of land, but he does not do much lording these days. He mostly sits around in his mansion. He hears music coming from somewhere and asks his servant, Ananta, about it. It turns out that a neighbor, Mahim Ganguly, has hired musical performers to celebrate his son’s rite of passage. Roy was invited, but did not go. This reminder, however, takes him back a few years earlier, when he did the same thing for his son, Khoka.
Roy’s servant tells him that he is in some financial trouble at the bank. Roy does not seem to care, and is willing to make his son’s initiation a real event. This willingness turns into intent with the arrival of Mahim Ganguly. Roy recognizes Ganguly as the son of a moneylender, but Ganguly has traveled around the region, setting up businesses here and there and growing successful. Now, he is in Roy’s domain and is looking to set up a business. Roy, being a benevolent lord, demands that Ganguly is fair with his prices and rates. Perhaps noticing that they are in Roy’s music room, Ganguly says that he is a big fan of music. Roy tries to remain aloof during the meeting; immediately afterwards, though, he confirms with his servant that the musical performers are set for his son’s initiation. Unwilling to turn to the “moneylender’s son” to fund this ceremony, Roy has his servants sell some of his family jewelry.
The ceremony goes well. Lots of people; good music. Well, it goes well according to Lord Roy. His wife, Mahamaya, was not so happy about the ostentatious manner of it all. She is even less happy to learn that some of the jewels had been sold to pay for the musicians. Even worse, it is clear that Khoka is developing his father’s habits for musicians and horse riding. Roy insists that these are not vices, but traits of a princely landlord. Mahamaya scoffs, suggesting that he had not been paying attention to how the waters have been rising and flooding significant portions of his domain.
Sometime later, Mahamaya learns that her father is sick. She prepares to leave with Khoka and wants Biswambhar to go with them. This is not because Lord Roy should show some compassion for his father-in-law, but because she is worried what he might do if she is not around to reign him in. Lord Roy insists that he must stay to take care of his land. Mahamaya scoffs at this, but lets him stay anyways.
During this time, Ganguly has been building a house not far away. It is all modern, with electricity and every newfangled thing; not much in the way of the traditional or the refined, though. The construction annoys Roy. One day, Ganguly pays a visit. He plans on celebrating the completion of the house on Bengali New Years Day and wants Lord Roy to attend. Roy says that he is having his own party here. Ganguly, visibly unhappy, says that he can work something out on his end. After Ganguly leaves, Roy tells his concerned servants to arrange for a lavish party with musicians on New Years and to tell his wife and son to return.
While this movie was made almost sixty years ago, The Music Room is actually quite applicable to today on multiple levels. The first involves the use of music. Granted, the music kind of sounds like the type of music that hippies would dance to about a decade later, but that is not what I mean. The music itself is treated lovingly and with reverence, but it is also presented like an addictive habit, like a drug. Lord Roy often seems like he is high, and that high comes from the music. And it is an expensive addiction, as the music comes from live performances which form the centerpieces of parties that he hosts for his subjects. These are things that he needs and which will destroy him. Is he that much different from people who splurge on big screen TVs or the highest quality audio equipment or play video games all day or just post blog after blog on the internet? Yes, some people can turn this habit into a job, but some simply turn it into a money pit. Or…the job can simply get taken away. Ahem.
Another theme in the movie is one of the past vs. the future. Nevermind that a whole lot of this movie is told in flashbacks, Lord Roy is living his entire life stuck in the past. He is part of a class whose role is becoming obsolete. His tastes and habits are dignified and classical, but they are ultimately impractical. Ganguly may be undignified, but his use of things like cars and electricity show him to be the wave of the future. This leads to the third theme of the film.
Probably the most obvious theme of the film is the caste system. The controversy over caste has not gone away. People in lower castes have gotten power and wealth in some avenues, but not respect. If Ganguly is not explicitly shown to be of a lower caste than Lord Roy, he is certainly in a lower class. Ganguly is not presented as someone worthy of respect; he is sniveling and awkward, with vibe of wickedness. There is just something inherently unlikeable about him. And, yes, reading that out now, I realize that this could be extrapolated in different ways. Yet, his origin story is one that modern ears may find admirable, as a man who came from extremely humble origins and worked his way up to wealth. Lord Roy may think of himself as a wise and just man, but the real source of his respectability comes from his heritage as opposed to anything he has done. If anything, he has bankrupted himself to maintain a decadent lifestyle. Ganguly lives much more prudently and cleverly, but people treat him with disrespect, while Roy starts a petty and one-sided war of one-upmanship that he is obviously going to lose. Ganguly’s money may not have earned him respect, but it certainly did not earn him such hostility. Whatever he did to become rich, at least he did not let his land rot under water as Lord Roy has.
The Music Room is not a happy movie. What movie about decay could be happy? If anything, it is a loving tribute to a past that could not sustain itself in the modern world and survived only to serve as an impediment to progress. It revels in the beauty of fine traditions while revealing the ugly behavior that clinging to those traditions could lead to. But just let it’s dreamlike qualities hypnotize you and you may have an enjoyable experience.
WTF ASIA 14: The Raid (Indonesia: 2011, approx. 101 minutes)
WTF ASIA 15: Welcome Back Mr. McDonald (Japan: 1997, approx. 104 minutes)
Available…uh…somewhere on the internet…maybe…