A startlingly complex and interesting character study. It’s a beautiful and melancholy take on the inevitable changing of social order, made even more wonderful by the phenomenal music it’s told with.
What a gorgeous and thoughtful film this was. Full of pitch perfect acting, beautiful cinematography, and incredible musical performances. The presentation of classical Indian music and dance were a revelation for me. I’ve only experienced those art forms in their most basic forms, and it was so wonderful to see them in all their glory. I was especially happy that the film showcased multiple styles of music and dance, all of which were performed by some of the most revered artists of the time, it really gave me a different level of appreciation for both.
All of that would be more than enough for me to have loved the film, but the ideas presented were fascinating as well. They were surprisingly complex, generally lacking in one-sided arguments, and provoking my own thoughts on the nature of class and society. This is a film about the changes in the hierarchical structure of society, as the old ways of organization fade into the past. We see the good aspects of these changes, and the bad, and especially how it affects both the beneficiaries of both systems.
Specifically, the story follows a zamindar, or feudal aristocrat, named Biswambhar Roy. It’s the 1920s and the Indian feudal system is definitely on its last legs. These titled landowners are no longer men of great power and demand, and their time is quickly fading. Roy is essentially broke, still living in his ancestral palace, but forced to mortgage his wife’s jewels in order to pay for his son’s initiation ceremony. His land has been ravaged by floods, so that most of it is now gone, and his palace is suddenly right next to the Ganges river. Roy’s financial troubles are compounded by the fact that he is addicted to Indian classical music, and hires the best musicians he can find to play lavish recitals at his house.
A moneylenders son has recently moved back to Roy’s land, a man who has done incredibly well in business, but has no heriditary royalty or position of respect. Despite desperately needing money, Roy cannot bring himself to borrow from this nouveau riche man, that he sees as a threat to the inherent worthiness of his titled position. Over the course of the film we watch as Roy’s fortunes continue to fall, while his rival, Mahim Ganguly, skyrockets. The story traces the ending of the zamindar system, the fall of this once-proud man, and the rise of the business people that followed him.
The film focuses a lot of its attention of the need of Roy to continue to maintain his status in the local social hierarchy. He does this by continually mortgaging his future in order to have parties and recitals that outdo whatever his new threatening neighbor Ganguly is doing. The film presents all this without any kind of judgment, or even much justification as to the reasons he acts this way. Instead we see it as simply the natural behavior of a man who knows nothing else, who has been raised to see this as simply his birthright. The petty victories he manages to win, which are completely out of proportion to their costs, are presented as enough justification for his entire existence. It’s a fascinating perspective.
Roy is a selfish and short-sighted man, obsessed with his station and the correctness of his actions. He brings about the ruin of all he cares about. And yet, the film absolutely made me feel sympathy and affection for him. I suppose it’s always somewhat easier to feel good things for the wealthy in decline. But it’s more than that; this man’s obsession with music, to a disastrous degree and in an almost childlike way, gives him a humanity that he wouldn’t have as a pure out of touch nobleman. Satyajit Ray famously said that he was bored by villains, and you can absolutely see it in the way he treats this man, who is watching the world pass him by, but can only do what he has been taught to do.
In that way this reminded me a little bit of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, another film about a formerly powerful man in decline. At the very least both films have you feeling sympathy for these men, who are no longer in touch with their society, and no longer needed by their world. In the case of Colonel Blimp, however, we follow a self-made man throughout the entirety of his career, building fondness for him and then watching as his time has past. Here, we join Roy already near the end, watching simply the final few moves in a game that’s already been long decided. It gives this film a very different feeling, even though the subject matter is similar.
The portrayal of the newly rich Ganguly, on the other hand, is mostly without the same sort of sympathy. He is presented as being a fawning and uncultured man, who is simply looking to be the big man in the area. And I think that’s because the story is being told from the perspective of Roy. Ganguly is only shown as his path intersects with Roy, and you can see that he’s desperately seeking some level of acknowledgment from a man who is, despite his declining fortunes, still treated with respect simply on the basis of his nobility. Ganguly’s life would be made easier if Roy would bless him as his natural replacement, or at least as an equal, but those are not things Roy is willing to do.
Ganguly on his own is not doing anything wrong, in fact he has brought things like technology to this remote part of the world. He’s not a villain either, he is simply the natural beneficiary of the changing times. He is shown providing free meals to the poor, and in general fulfilling his duties as a rich person at least as well as Roy does, he is just not part of Roy’s view of the world. The scenes between the two men are some of the films strongest, and left me feeling like Satyajit Ray was as unsure as I was to exactly which side he preferred. This was my first introduction to his films, and what a phenomenal start it was, I cannot wait to see more.