Jalsaghar opens to the shot of a large, ornate, candlelit chandelier, precariously swaying from the momentum of its cumbersome weight. It is a vestige of the fading grandeur of Huzur Biswambhar Roy’s (Chhabi Biswas) cherished jalsaghar – the elegant entertainment room where guests listen to the performance of traditional musicians amid eroded columns and peeling plaster. In early twentieth century India, it is also a symptom of Roy’s aristocratic obsolescence. Roy lounges on his empty rooftop terrace, overlooking his inherited property, now worthlessly reduced to marshland, staring idly into space, smoking his hookah pipe. His wealthy, but uncultured neighbor, Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Basu), has hired traveling players for his son’s Sacred Thread Ceremony, and Roy is angered by Ganguly’s ostentatious display of extravagance. After being informed that Ganguly had invited him to the ceremony, Roy refuses to attend, citing Ganguly’s negligence in failing to personally extend an invitation to the revered mazumdar (feudal lord). Recalling his own son Khoka’s (Pinaki Sen Gupta) Sacred Thread Ceremony, Roy retreats into a world of lost memories, and reveals the sad and tragic portrait of obstinacy and hubris that led to his idle complacency, personal tragedy, and self-imposed isolation.
Satyajit Ray creates a dispassionate and objective, yet profound and engaging examination of decadence and obsolescence in Jalsaghar. By embodying subtle themes during the performance of the private concerts, Ray depicts an increasingly self-destructive pattern of excess and desperation. The first performance, in commemoration of Khoka’s Sacred Thread Ceremony, is a traditional concert, and serves as a narcissistic reassurance of Roy’s prominence and social stature, despite his disappearing wealth. The second performance, impetuously arranged in order to thwart Ganguly’s own housewarming plans, features an enigmatic, non-native old man. Occurring amid signs of an impending, catastrophic storm, the concert serves as an ominous harbinger to an unknown, looming tragedy. The final performance, a “new” repertoire combining song and dance, is frenetic and mesmerizing, and sharply contrasts with Roy’s self-indulgent lethargy. Figuratively, like the consuming rivalry between Roy and Ganguly, the familiarity of tradition has been displaced by the vitality of the modern. Inevitably, Roy is left alone to savor the intoxicating oblivion of his Phyrric victory, only to be sobered by the emergence of a spider from his portrait. Like the noble ancestors adorning the great walls of the jalsaghar, he too, is a languishing, superfluous relic.
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