Jalsaghar (1958)

7 12 2010

This is a review-discussion I had with Shieldmaden, a poster at The Corrierino forums. I transcribe it here.

Shieldmaiden: I found Jalsaghar interesting, if not always enjoyable. Roy is such a foolish, self-absorbed, petty man that his downfall carries little weight, despite the fact that he represents a way of life that’s eroding as fast as his land. The mood is definitely wistful, though, as we wander through his decaying mansion. I appreciated the focus on manners, on the careful interactions showing levels of respect between generations, servants and master, money lender and nobleman. The servants are a highlight — so much exasperation, disapproval, bafflement on their faces; their reactions perfect when he asks what the neighbor’s house looks like, or when he says, “Use a silver plate.” I spent the musical performances thinking about how foreign (non-Western) the Indian music sounds, and then the British band music makes Roy clutch his ears in pain. Haha.

I was surprised by the way the film changes near the end. It feels looser, more fun, almost campy, as Roy gets more and more drunk and loses his grip on reality. His panic attack is a good moment, with horror-movie music as the flames gutter out. He doesn’t bash anyone’s head in with a bowling pin, but, there is blood. “Blood!”

Guido Pellegrini: We could bring in Pedro Paramo into the discussion, since he’s the eponymous protagonist of my favorite novel, which contains structural and thematic links with Citizen Kane, since we learn about the conceited, rich, and increasingly withdrawn powerful man of the title through the voices of other people, although in Pedro Paramo those people are ghosts and the powerful man’s demise is also the demise of an entire town. Like Kane and Plainview from There Will Be Blood, Pedro Paramo is an ambitious character, someone who is willing to do the most perverse things to succeed, and whose ambition ultimately leads to a moral fallout. It’s interesting to note that Kane and Plainview don’t really have a material fallout. We don’t see their mansions crumble. We see them crumbling as human beings. When Plainview screams that he’s “finished,” he does so in a perfectly resplendent bowling alley, or at least, formerly resplendent, before he bathed it in blood. But that’s the only flaw in an otherwise immaculate mansion. Paramo and Roy from Jalsaghar, on the other hand, see their wealth and their prestige wither before their increasingly inactive bodies. Paramo comes to represent a ghost town. Roy comes to represent a ruin. He’s inside of a ruin and the way of life he represents is just as outdated.

But what distances Roy from Paramo, Kane, and Plainview, is that Roy is not an ambitious man. He doesn’t do anything to deserve his wealth. Awful and conniving as they might be, Paramo, Kane, and Plainview go to great lengths to acquire their capital. They deserve their wealth in the sense that they fought for it, often inhumanely, often unethically, but they fought for it. They don’t deserve to be happy, of course, and they’re not. Yet they are all self-made men to an extent. Even Kane, who is blessed by an early helping hand (although that same helping hand is finally revealed to be more of a long-lasting punishment, emotionally-speaking), does not rest on the laurels of his given riches and creates bundles of his own wealth. Roy, however, begins by over-spending what his legacy has left behind for him, and continues to do the same throughout the running time of the film. He’s a feudal landlord who owns what his family has earned in the past, and as modernity forgets the age of landlords, Roy does nothing to adapt. Instead, he squanders what he has and spends great lapses of time sitting on various chairs, cushions and pillows, watching the hours sift by him while he indulges on his hookah. Paramo, Kane, and Plainview are all given scenes that showcase their dynamism and virility. We see their young enterprising selves. We see them move. They might all ultimately be reduced to hulking, aged giants. But before then, we have already seen the spirited boys they once were. Roy is never spirited. Certainly, he is a bit more energetic during his flashbacks, before the nocturnal tragedy that occurs half-way through the movie. But only a bit more energetic: in essence, he’s still rather inactive. We almost never see him outside of his mansion.

I draw attention to this because I think it’s key to understanding the film’s unique flow. This is not a movie about a rise and fall, because there is no rise. This is probably why his decadence held little weight for you. Roy never has to struggle for his wealth. That role is reserved for his neighbor Mahim Ganguly, who is Roy’s foil: an enterprising money lender who has acquired prominence through his own efforts. This doesn’t make Ganguly a hero. He’s annoying and hypocritical. He pretends to be a great cultivator of music, but doesn’t seem very engaged during the recitals. Yet he still makes his own wealth, buys his own car, and installs his own generator. He is modern. He spends his earnings in modern objects. Roy inherits his wealth and wastes it in traditional classical Indian music. He doesn’t even try to remove himself from the past. He is firmly planted on the ground of what used to be.

Jalsaghar, then, is simply the story of a protracted fall, which Roy cannot prevent because he’s lost in a hookah-enabled daze that melds day and night into a continuous flow charging into oblivion. Satyajit Ray composes Jalsaghar accordingly. There is a soulful voluptuousness to the music sequences, or those scenes where Roy is wasting away, shifting through his mansion. We hear the melancholy strings of the sitar, and the camera flies away and into the characters, as if it too were in a daze. We feel as if the air itself had awful weight, or as if the camera were breaking through this heavy air in a series of miraculous transgressions. During these moments, the story comes to a halt. Nothing purposeful happens in terms of plot. These moments are like held notes. We await their disappearance while the note rebels against our expectations and reverberates without end. In the same way, these scenes seem to be eternal. Since there is no schematic reason for them to either exist or continue for so long, we eventually lose our grasp over them. We cannot contain them inside any preconceived notion of how the film is supposed to play out. So we relax and allow ourselves to just drift with the camera, inhaling the heavy air of these introspective stretches. I am not just referring to the actual recitals. I mean many other moments interspersed throughout the film, with Roy listening to music, a lot of it diegetic, although it often feels like the music that colonizes the frames of Jalsaghar doesn’t need to emanate from an instrument, as if they were the notes of a dying world crying its drowsy swan song.

I think there are two Roys. I think he is always dead, from the first frame onward. He is not present or living in the present. He is submerged in a hookah daze punctuated by sitar wails. He watches the protracted sunset of his life as if inhabiting a dream. Intermittently, he has to surface from the depths of his introspection to attend to practical present-day matters, and even then, he mostly worries about organizing new dreams to be had, new recitals and musical trances. Paramo, Kane, and Plainview also withdraw into themselves as they age. But they aspire to a physical representation of their gains. They build mansions in order to inhabit their wealth. Once they build them, they find them unsatisfying and try to remove themselves from the spiritual failure that their mansions evidence by diverting their eyes inward. Kane is an introspective tank besotted by the Gothic monstrosity of Xanadu. Roy, on the other hand, never aspires to anything physical. He has always already had everything physical he could wish for. At least, most of it was given to him from birth. He never had to fight for it. What he does aspire to is the ethereal, the beautiful music. He is willing to smudge his love for music with foreign interests. He uses music to maintain his prestige. The recitals he stages are for his own enjoyment as much as they are for the consideration and delectation of his society cohorts. But when he is alone in his mansion, with nobody to impress but himself, he still forgets the physical and dives into the intangible universe of the musical, not necessarily as a way to escape the hell of a mansion he has constructed, as with Kane, but simply because it is there, in music, where he is alive: not an escape, but an infiltration. He doesn’t run away from life so much as he breaks into another mansion, one made of pulled strings. I said there were two Roys. One is the Roy of the living. He’s a frigid human being. He barely cares for his family. Or if he does, his love is tempered by an even more powerful love for his wealth, as with Plainview, whose love for his adopted son is always in confrontation with his reclusive desire to make enough money to die alone in an expensive grave. He is jealous of Ganguly, envious of the New Rich. He doesn’t seek or desire a profound connection to anyone else. The other Roy is the Roy of the dead, or rather, the Roy of dreams, of remembrance. I said Roy is always dead. I meant his body is as good as dead. Since the Roy of dreams predominates, Roy’s body is empty during most of Jalsaghar. The Roy of dreams is always flying away from the body — into the past, into music, into elsewhere — and the body we see in-front of the camera is just a vessel that has been left behind by the wandering soul.

I see that I have fallen into a dualism that I don’t necessarily believe in. I think this is because Roy’s behavior inspires me to think in terms of dualism. He creates the dualism, operates along its dividing line. He willfully submerges into the imagined, into the remembered, and forgets where he is in the present. Everything outside the palace of his imagined realm withers while he dreams: the real waning mansion, the flooded lands, the mortgaged jewelry, the lost family. This is why he thinks he can still ride that horse in the end. He has spent so many hours dreaming of the past, that when he finally makes a decision for the present, it is at variance with the reality of that present.

Of course, Roy’s interior world, obsessed as it is with the past, is always being invaded by what is outside in the present, by what he captures with his senses: his introspection is always tied to music, to what he hears; the nocturnal tragedy is presaged by numerous natural harbingers, from flies drowning in drink, to nightmarish lightening showing-off in the horizon; his downfall is underlined by dying candles. Roy’s subjective inner world of imagination and remembrance is jolted by this sensory onslaught that forces him to recognize the present moment. Roy even tries to alter the present moment to better resemble his remembered image, like when he reinvigorates his unkempt music room. Satyajit Ray fills the frame with chiaroscuro patterns, embroidered carpets, and ornamental chandeliers that swing in the darkness, all of these shapes trapping the protagonist and mimicking his decadence. The mansion is like an extension of Roy, a desolate structure standing seemingly alone in what appears to be a barren wasteland, removed from the progress that churns around it, lost in time, a relic of the XIX century. Roy’s tragedy is that he cannot move forward, since the only movement he can do is towards the past and then back to the present, a present that is increasingly distant from the past being recalled. The mansion is his nemesis. The mansion cannot recall its past. The mansion is its present. It is its past degraded by the intervening years. Whereas Roy forgets where he is in order to think about where he was, the mansion perpetually juxtaposes what it was and what it is in a present-day form that cannot but remind Roy of his own expiration. And so it does.

Shieldmaiden: I’m sorry that I haven’t read Pedro Paramo. But I have seen Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood, so I can agree that Roy’s downfall loses emotional weight by comparison, because it has no build up, no youthful energy or achievement. Roy is a sedentary man to start with, and what energy he has, both mental and physical, he’s put into listening to music. Not a very productive occupation!

But when the film begins, he’s lost even that. It’s this dead feeling you describe so beautifully — the heavy atmosphere, the decayed, empty mansion – that emphasizes Roy’s lethargy (I think it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call it clinical depression) as he sits on his roof staring into space. But, surely the cause of his lethargy isn’t his hookah, or old age, or a decrepit house, or even his impoverishment. Instead, his stupor is caused by the loss of his wife and son. In the scene immediately following the tragedy, he seems stunned, hardly able to understand as his servant explains his financial collapse. Then we’re back on the roof, with Roy in his old age, still staring and confused.

His love for his son is made pretty clear in the flashbacks, but I want to talk about his wife. I forgot to mention her before, and I feel that Ray almost does as well! She is seriously underutilized in this film, and I wonder why. She’s a great character, loved by Roy, but underappreciated, as we see in her tearful scene after the son’s coming-of-age ceremony. (“We’re losing all of our land to erosion!” “Nonsense!”) She’s underappreciated in death, too; not even mentioned after the accident! When she is on screen, though, she brings out the best in Roy. Look at the scene where she and their son are leaving on their trip. Her flirtatious scolding and his good-natured comebacks give us the most favorable impression of Roy that we’re going to get. But we barely see her before she’s gone.

I don’t have much respect for Roy, but to do him justice, I feel sure that his emotional and physical shutdown is more a result of the loss of his family than his financial disgrace. The loss of his family is the elephant in the room, the unspoken terror behind his final breakdown. As he drags his servant from portrait to portrait, reveling in his family’s prestige and nobility, he can’t escape the devastating fact that his is the last portrait. He is the end of his line.

Guido Pellegrini: Those are interesting thoughts. I suppose I always found his affection inadequate. It’s similar to There Will Be Blood. Every viewer will gauge the father-son relationship differently. Some will say the love is genuine. Others will say it’s part of Plainview’s showmanship. I say it’s a combination of both, the precise ratio shifting from scene to scene. We could say the same thing about Roy. He definitely loves his family. But that distant, lethargic Roy that emerges post-tragedy is still discernible in the younger Roy. He’s never exactly buoyant. He is always haughty and removed. He just becomes more so after the tragedy. Even the tender scenes with his wife: there is always a distance. His playfulness in the little moment you describe is cute, but she’s the one displaying most of the affection. There are, of course, cultural and contextual undercurrents. She’s supposed to show affection and veneration. He’s supposed to exude superiority. That’s what their social roles have ordained. And those roles decide how the little moment plays out. I think there is love squeaking through the cracks of these narrow roles, but it is certainly a suffering love gasping for air amidst so much structure, formality, and restrained tenderness. Assuming Roy is restraining it, which would mean it is there in the first place.

What I meant to conclude in my previous answer was that, even though Roy seems trapped in his inner world of memory and imagination, there is a dialogue between what Roy feels and what his outside environment evokes. The environment provides clues to what is happening to Roy. But this is only possible because Roy is likewise part of the conversation. The environment can evoke what happens to Roy because what Roy feels is reflected in the environment, and the environment in turn affects what Roy feels. His listlessness leads the house towards oblivion. Forgotten first by Roy, the house begins to be forgotten by time. Soon, it is already a relic. And this relic reminds Roy that he has also become irrelevant and outdated. Those portraits, those dwindling lights, are charged symbols of deterioration. But they’re more important as the ghosts of Roy’s nightmare. We don’t need the symbols to provide us with information. We know we are watching a downfall. What these symbols do is force Roy to consider his dire reality, as if the house were trying to talk to Roy about their mutual ruin. An unsuccessful chat, it would seem. Roy listens, but only to go mad and obviate whatever lessons he could have learned.

Shieldmaiden: Ah, now I see where you were going with that, and I really like the idea of the conversation between Roy and his decayed mansion. It makes sense of that horror-music and candles scene for me. What I saw as a strange overreaction makes much more sense as the house forcefully shakes him out of his lethargy. There’s a beautiful logic to the house as the evocation of what he’s become, since he caused its ruin along with his own; and it enriches the whole movie to look at it that way! Thanks for the perspective. This was definitely a movie I needed to discuss to fully appreciate.

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