(director/writer: Satyajit Ray; screenwriter: based on a novel by Tarashankar Banerjee; cinematographer: Subrata Mitra; editor: Dulal Dutta; music: Ustad VilayatKhan; cast: Chabi Biswas (Biswambhar Roy), Padma Devi (His Wife, Mahamaya), Pinaki Sen Gupta (His Son, Khoka,), Tulsi Lahiri (Manager of Roy’s estate), Kali Sarkar (Roy’s servant, Ananta), Gangapado Bose (Mahim Ganguly), Roshan Kumari (Kathak Dancer); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Satyajit Ray; Criterion Collection; 1958-India-in Bengali with English subtitles)
“A remarkable film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The great director from India, with an international reputation, Satyajit Ray (“Pather Panchali”/”Charulata”/”The Chess Players”), bases his poignant, austere film, that depicts a clash between tradition and the modern ways, on a short story by Tarashankar Banerjee. It’s set in the late 1920s, in a rural area where the protagonist is an aging feudal landlord, Biswambhar Roy (Chabi Biswas, one of India’s greatest actors), who lives in a crumbling palace and is an idler puffing on his hookah while seated on his roof attended by his aging servant Ananta (Kali Sarkar) and not doing a thing about his dwindling ancestral wealth that was squandered away over the years because of his foolish extravagances.

There are long flashbacks to a happier time when Roy was thrilled by his only son (Pinaki Sen Gupta) and was kept from becoming too foolish by his more practical-minded wife (Padma Devi), and of a time when he took pride in his music room–featuring a large, ornate, candlelit chandelier, that made attending a concert here special. In the music room Roy invited India’s greatest musicians to perform for his noble guests. Roy now can’t change his wasteful ways and clings to a life that’s disappearing, and is conflicted by the success of his uncultured self-made neighbor, Mahim Ganguly (Gangapado Bose), a moneylender with social ambitions whose house is equipped with modern furniture and has a noisy generator for electricity that penetrates to his house and interferes with his concentration. It greatly annoys Roy that the upstart nouveau riche neighbor tries to use his money to gain the respect Roy inherited from a good birth.

Sinking into a listless drug-induced fantasy world as he’s slowly dying, the middle-aged Roy reviews his life and we see his downfall is caused by hubris, arrogance, lethargy, selfishness and hedonism. Becoming increasingly melancholic, Roy mourns the death of his wife and child in a boating accident four years ago during a thunderstorm and rekindles the better memories when he had political clout and the social scene revolved around him. This look inside at what Roy’s thinking, leaves us with a sad and tragic figure who will not be able to hold onto for too much longer his privileged life as he chooses to bankrupt himself for one last glorious recital party in his cherished reopened music room with a great kathak dancer (Roshan Kumari).

It’s a remarkable film that’s filled with outstanding Indian classical music and is hypnotic as a fable that might treat its aristocratic protagonist with respect, but has little sympathy for his plight. Ray’s democratic social insights and his revealing close-up character study of such a useless antiquated person whose mind became darkened in his last days to a point where he lost control of his wits, after a brief moment of triumph, showing up his neighbor that he could still throw a great recital, is masterly done, as the filmmaker paints an ironic picture of a dying feudal era that should be remembered not only for its glory but for all its warts.

Jalsaghar (1958)