Jalsaghar (1958)

3 01 2009

In a lot of ways, this is Ray’s weakest film. A story that echoes Citizen Kane but is divided into three musical performances? Sounds like a completely terrible idea and possibly unnecessary since Ray would go on to do another very Kane-esque film in Nayak / Hero (1966) but the music is just really great here. I’ve always been fond of Ray’s music and this film is really just an excuse for him to go crazy with his score. It is a little tedious at times, which isn’t all that surprising considering how much time Ray devotes to the three concerts, but this flawed structure ends up being part of its charm.

Like Welles’ Citizen Kane before it, and Ray’s own Nayak after it, Jalsghar tells the story of a wealthy and successful individual who slowly begins to realize his life is shallow and empty. In this case, the main’s character emotional collapse is attributed to not only his age, but also his declining fortune. Unlike the aforementioned films, the character’s state is worsened by the death of his wife and teenage son. It’s easy to criticize Ray’s rather incident-driven timeline, but its the sort of tragic drama that I’ve come to expect from him, at least every now and then. More often than not, Ray has to have someone die for his stories to progress, which would be a problem if he didn’t seem to put so much effort in fleshing out these characters. They are ultimately just plot points, which is always a bad thing, but the deaths here (with the exception of the film’s finale) are dramatically played down.

Many people seem to be fond of one time theater actor Chhabi Biswas’ performance, but while he does fill his role without too many problems, I would have much rather seen some of the more familiar faces of Ray’s work. Obviously, Soumitra Chatterjee would not have been old enough to play the main role and at this point, he had yet to collaborate with Ray, but it was still disappointing to not be able to see Ray’s usual players. Especially in a film like this, in which most of the “drama” is rather kitschy and embarrassing. This isn’t exactly Biswas’ fault, but the sequence towards the end where he reaches some sort of epiphany is made a complete joke by the goofy horror movie music in the background. I guess no one could really make such a sequence feel subtle, but Biswas certainly doesn’t help make it feel any less ridiculous.

So why did I end up enjoying this? Well, again, the music (from the performances, not the previously mentioned horror movie music) is absolutely fantastic. In addition, the performance seem to nicely break up most of the melodrama, making it a bit less noticable. It also helps that I do enjoy watching Ray’s free-roaming aesthetic, even if the content isn’t exactly suited towards my taste. It’s not as though this film is anywhere close to Days and Nights in the Forest, but it isn’t any worse than Abhijan and it is a hell of a lot better than The Chess Players.