Set in the 1920s, Jalsaghar poignantly portrays the decadence and fading glory of the Bengali zamindar (feudal landowner). Unable to accept the success of his nouveau riche upstart neighbor and still clinging to the remnants of his past grandeur, the protagonist, Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) is a pathetic and pitiful figure. Andrew Robinson compares Roy to another character from a later Ray film – Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) – “Both are irresponsible men whose faults typify their class, but both are redeemed by a genuine love of music and dancing.” Shatranj Ke Khilari’s Nawab and Jalsaghar’s Bengali zamindar are emblematic of the feudal elite, anachronistic and powerless, besotted with their aristocratic past and struggling to survive against forces of modernity and change.
Ray had initially planned Jalsaghar as a more frivolous film, with lighter, less austere music. Following the commercial failure of Aparajito in Bengal, he was in desperate need of a winner. In a letter to Marie Seton in May 1957, Ray describes the film as “a rather showy piece about a decadent music-loving zamindar and his fantastic efforts to uphold family prestige”. However, in the course of writing the screenplay, the “frivolous”, “showy piece” was transformed into a “brooding drama”, a “serious study of (Indian) feudalism” and also the first film to employ Indian classical music as an integral element of its narrative. The film’s music by noted sitar maestro, Ustad Vilayat Khan, was more strictly classical than the fluid musical style of Ravi Shankar (who had composed music for the Apu Trilogy).
However, it was during the making of Jalsaghar that Ray became further convinced against using classical musicians as film composers. He felt that none of the musical greats he had worked with – Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan – could successfully mould their talents to the demands of a film, or indulge in experimentation. In spite of Khan’s strict adherence to Indian classical music, he did convince him to agree to some mixing. In the scene where Roy is gripped by his own impending doom at the sight of the darkening chandeliers, Ray felt that Indian music alone would not be able to convey Roy’s terror. While editing he added to Vilayat’s soulful sitar rendition some Sibelius, thus creating “a sound texture that is more than just a music track”.
Chhabi Biswas as Biswambhar Roy brings to life the decadent and brooding zamindar. Biswas, one of Bengali cinema’s most renowned actors, also essayed pivotal roles in two other Ray films, Devi and Kanchenjunga. “Whether strutting around in sparkling white with a cockade and a riding crop, glancing in private at his meagre ‘purse’ for the dancer with disdainful resignation, subduing the vulgar Ganguli with a flick of his ivory cane, or staggering in drunken elation and depression around the music room, he is a formidable presence.” (Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)
It is ironic that Chhabi Biswas, playing the role of a music connoisseur, was himself virtually tone-deaf, a fact that Ray discovered rather late. Biswas had assured Ray that he would try to play the connoisseur “by producing the right facial expressions at certain points, saying wah wah, shaking his head, ‘looking dreamy eyed’ and so on.” But Ray would have none of it. He did insist, though, that Biswas learn how to fake the playing of an esraj so that he could be seen accompanying his son’s singing of the scales. He also asked Biswas to do something much simpler: to lift one finger of his right hand while he was listening to the strains of dancing coming from Ganguli’s house. Biswas had no idea why he was doing this, but in fact, to musical connoisseurs, this makes it clear that Roy knows the rhythmic cycle of the dance music. Later, during the mixing, it gave Ray real satisfaction to coincide the lifting of that finger with the precise beat of the music on the soundtrack. (Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)
Like many of Ray’s other films, Jalsaghar also has its share of interesting anecdotes. The ‘discovery’ of Biswambhar Roy’s palace is a story in itself. Ray and his team had just inspected their thirtieth nobleman’s palace (for the zamindar’s palatial mansion) and rejected it, when an old man in a tea shop overheard them talking and suggested they visit the palace of the Chowdhurys at Nimtita on the border of Bangladesh. Without much hope, they agreed to go. Recounting the experience in his article, "Winding Route to a Music Room", Ray wrote – “Nimtita turned out to be everything that the old man had claimed – and more. No one could have described in words the feeling of utter desolation that surrounded the palace.” The owner was a seventy-year-old zamindar who knew one of Ray’s grand-uncles and who was the antithesis of Biswambhar Roy; he neither drank alcohol nor listened to music. But he had experience of that kind of behavior through his late uncle, Upendra Narayan Chowdhury, who had build the palace music room. Incidentally, Upendra Narayan was the same zamindar on whom Tarashankar had based his decadent protagonist.
Jalsaghar was a commercial success in Bengal, but received mixed reviews when released in the US in 1963. For Stanley Kauffman, it was “a deeply felt, extremely tedious film” while Bosley Crowther (who had earlier dismissed Pather Panchali) waxed eloquence about “the delicacy of the direction…the performance that Chhabi Biswas gives as the decaying landowner…the eloquence of Indian music and the aura of the mise en scene.” Ray himself had regarded the film as incapable of appealing to a Western audience – “I didn’t think it would export at all” – and was faintly surprised at its international success. (Satyajit Ray in conversation with Andrew Robinson; Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)