Satyajit Ray made Jalsaghar (1958) after the critical and financial failure in India of Aparajito (1956), the second film in the Apu Trilogy. Ray believed that a film with songs and dances woven into its narrative would naturally appeal to the Indian filmgoer, guaranteeing Jalsaghar’s success. Ironically, Aparajito won great international acclaim and many awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, in its time and is regarded as one of Ray’s finest films by modern critics, whereas Jalsaghar not only flopped in its time but is considered the weakest offering of Ray’s oeuvre.
After watching Jalsaghar myself recently, I found myself agreeing with critics that it’s not Ray’s best; at the same time, I certainly believe it’s one of his most complete works and is far superior to Aparajito in this regard. Aparajito’s two halves – the first set in Benares and the second alternating between a Bengali village and Calcutta – seem to be two different films altogether, with new themes and ideas emerging in the second half that have virtually no setup in the first half. Jalsaghar, meanwhile, is thematically and visually coherent, with the first shot of the film telling you pretty much everything you need to know about the protagonist’s state of mind and potential fate at the end of the film.
Jalsaghar has been written about so many times that it’s difficult to say anything new about it. Its story can be summed up in one sentence: Rich old man loses his family, his fortune, and sanity trying to cling to the last vestiges of his aristocratic pride. The zamindar, Biswambar Roy’s fate paralleled that of zamindars all over the country at the time the film was released. These men, with their decadent ways and outmoded values, had no place in a newly independent country that viewed democracy and the scientific temper as lighthouses guiding it on the sea of progress.
Watching the film today, when democracy is in peril not only in India but all over the world and when India’s scientific community faces the contradiction of a space program that may send Indians to the moon and a government that makes straight-faced claims about the existence of plastic surgery and aeroplanes based on revisionist readings of great Indian epics, Jalsaghar comes across as a black comedy about the dangers of clinging too tenaciously to one’s worldview.
It is the possibility of such diverse readings that keeps Ray’s film fresh half a century after their release. For my part, when watching Jalsaghar, I found myself recalling another black comedy: Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Nearly everyone knows the story of Don Quixote. Here’s another one-line summary of the novel: Formerly rich old man reads a bunch of stories about knights and chivalry and loses his savings and his sanity trying to become a knight himself.
However, Don Quixote, like Jalsaghar, is a thematically rich work that is open to multiple interpretations. Indeed, the novel’s memorable protagonist has been viewed through different lenses in the centuries since the novel was first published. Whereas he was initially viewed as a buffoon, the Romanticists considered him a deeply tragic figure who set out on a doomed mission to rebuild a world that no longer existed. Modern critics fall somewhere in the middle, perceiving the novel as a coal-black comedy about the futility of doing good in a world filled with scoundrels ever ready to call you ‘mad’ the moment you step beyond their established limits of reason. In today’s age of Trump and Boris Johnson, Don Quixote represents all of us who still believe in the ideals of democracy, secularism, and justice for all and are dismissed as peddlers of outdated beliefs whose heads were turned after reading one too many books and who stubbornly refuse to perceive the reality of the world around them.
Ray depicts Biswambar Roy with his typical restraint (except in a few glaring cases of heavy-handed symbolism) and a pronounced lack of criticism, allowing viewers to form their own conclusions about where Ray’s sympathies truly lie. Many critics have thus assumed that the film is a straightforward critique of the zamindari system, given Ray’s own liberal leanings.
However, certain images from the film belie this assumption. For example, one of the earliest scenes depicts a young Biswambar making a hero’s entry into his mansion. He is seen running at full gallop on a horse while wearing fine clothes and a magnificent turban. After he dismounts and enters the house, his servant approaches with a telegram. Biswambar asks him to read it out. The telegram is from Biswambar’s bank, informing him about the dire state of his finances. In the scene, Biswambar is at the top of the staircase leading to his jalsaghar (music room), whereas the servant is on the bottom step. The camera deliberately foregrounds Biswambar, allowing him to fill the frame while the servant, already shrunken and hunchbacked, almost melts into his surroundings. Biswambar laughs off the telegram before leaving the frame. He is on top of the world.
However, this is Biswambar’s zenith; from this point, he starts to lose everything. The first jalsa depicted in the film all but depletes Biswambar’s coffers. The second jalsa, which Biswambar puts on only to cock-a-snook at Ganguly – Biswambar’s neighbour who owns a construction company and is a member of the nouveau riche who Biswambar treats with barely concealed disdain – inadvertently takes the lives of Biswambar’s wife and son, who had to cross the river bordering Biswambar’s estate on a stormy night to attend the jalsa.
Biswambar, although devastated by these catastrophes, is allowed to retain his dignity. He locks up the jalsaghar and continues to live a life of genteel poverty, consistently refusing invitations from Ganguly to attend his own jalsas. One by one, his servants leave him, until he’s left with just one loyal servant (the same one from the beginning of the film) and his accountant.
Then Ganguly visits again, announcing that he’s hiring a grand jalsa and has invited a very famous and sought-after dancer. It is implied that this jalsa is Ganguly’s grand debut in aristocratic society. Biswambar, having already been forced to give up his prize elephant to Ganguly, cannot stand this affront. He coldly rejects the invitation and, after Ganguly leaves, orders his servant to reopen the music room. He then calls his accountant and asks him to spend everything in the coffers to hire Ganguly’s singer and organise a jalsa. The accountant is horrified at the prospect, but Biswambar has his way, setting the stage for the third and most important jalsa of the film.
On the fateful night, Biswambar watches the jalsa with a mixture of pride and pure pleasure. Chhabi Biswas’s restrained performance indicates Biswambar’s state of mind: he is focused on the jalsa and nothing else. For this moment at least, all his financial problems and regrets have melted away. Ganguly, forced to attend the jalsa to retain his dignity, seethes quietly. After the performance, Ganguly prepares to throw his money pouch at the dancer but is stopped by Biswambar, who informs Ganguly in a steely voice, ‘The first right to do that is mine alone’. Ganguly hangs his head, suitable chastened.
After everyone has left, Biswambar drunkenly strides around the music room, feeling more joyful and contented than he has in years. His jalsa was a success, and he has succeeded in thwarting Ganguly. However, as dawn’s early light breaks through the windows of the jalsaghar, Biswambar seems to slowly wake from his trance and perceive the reality around him: his loneliness; his poverty; his magnificent jalsaghar inside a mansion that’s crumbling to pieces; and the encroaching river that has already swallowed most of his estate and is prepared to devour his mansion as well. In a tour de force performance, Biswas shows viewers a kaleidoscope of emotions on Biswambar’s face. Biswambar knows that – one way or another – his time is up.
In the next scene, Biswambar runs out of the mansion like a man possessed and heads to the stables, where his beloved horse awaits. He jumps astride it and gallops off into the distance while his servant and accountant run after him, begging him to stop. However, Biswambar rides on and on towards a collision with a docked boat. At the last minute, the frightened horse rears up and bucks Biswambar off; he goes flying ten feet, hits the ground head first, and rolls over, dead. This is an incredibly dramatic and action-packed scene, and one’s impression of it depends on whether one subscribes to the idea of Quixote-as-a-fool or Quixote-as-a-Romantic-hero. Many, perhaps most, critics seem to subscribe to the former notion.
Biswambar’s death is viewed as the inevitable consequence of his lifestyle and his arrogance. However, I dislike this interpretation because it is too unsubtle for Ray. Like other postmodernists, I fall somewhere in the middle of the two aforementioned notions, but I believe Ray’s own notion was a Romantic one.
The image of the aged Biswambar on the horse neatly parallels that of the younger Biswambar from the beginning of the film. That Biswambar was supremely confident; his finances were not in great shape, but he was not facing penury yet, and he had a wife and child he doted on. The present-day Biswambar has lost everything save his dignity. Come morning, he knows he will lose that as well, when his mansion and estate are seized by creditors. It is this realisation – that the era he knew is over and that the Gangulies of the world have won despite his machinations – that propel his suicide. However, the way Ray frames the action is fascinating: Biswambar is once again framed as the hero riding into the horizon, leaving the problems of the material world – represented by the servant and accountant – behind, unable to do anything but watch impotently.
Additionally, boats have long been viewed as motifs of progress and new horizons. Consider Noah’s Ark; the Mayflower, which brought the first pilgrims from England to the New World; and the boat that, pulled by Matsya, brought the Seven Sages into the new yuga after a great cleansing flood. In Jalsaghar, the boat that Biswambar is set to collide with, similarly represents the future. Rejected by that future, he is flung back into the past to die. However, the final triumph is his: he has managed to break free of the tethers of the material world and, having galloped off into the sunrise, chosen the dignity of death over the ignominy of life as a pauper.
Jalsaghar is still a cautionary tale. Biswambar’s life and habits have been correctly derided and should by no means be emulated. However, viewing them through the simplistic prism of right and wrong is doing a disservice to Ray’s art. Ray often said that he believed in the innate goodness of people and that no one was all good or all bad. His grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray, and grandfather’s friend, Rabindranath Tagore, proved in their lifetimes that zamindars could be benevolent and capable of being useful to society. Similarly, Ray’s Biswambar is a complex character whose tendency to indulge in his worst excesses is softened somewhat by his tender relationship with his wife and son. Ray leaves Biswambar’s fate open to interpretation; while it would be convenient to see his death as a fitting denouement of a life ill lived, I believe it is far more interesting and true to Ray’s own philosophy to see it as a tragic but ultimately tender end to a feudal era that, regardless of its depredations, formed a significant corner of the tapestry of India’s past.