The great Indian Bengali filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, released one of his most renowned masterworks, The Music Room, in 1958, just prior to the third film in his Apu trilogy. This film, based on a short story by Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay, is in a completely different mode of storytelling than the epic and realistic style of the Apu films. Though it contains no elements of magic or mysticism, The Music Room is essentially a fable, packed with symbolism but nevertheless remaining grounded and humanistic. Mirrors, a chandelier, insects, a cane, all play a role as powerful visual symbols in Ray’s story. But the role of sound and music is most important of all, with some of the most absorbing musical performances I know of in the movies.
For a synopsis of the plot, I invite you to read Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review. For myself, in watching this film though I was very aware of the cultural gaps between myself and the world portrayed in the story, I still was moved by the essence of the human drama and the universal themes that Ray explored. In his essay for the Criterion release, Philip Kemp writes, “Ray himself, believing it too culturally specific to attract non-Indian audiences, ‘didn’t think it would export at all.'” Ray was mistaken, of course, since this has come to be a film beloved around the world. But still, there is some truth that there would undoubtedly be more depth of feeling if I could understand the art of the film from the inside, rather than as a foreigner.