CONTAINS SPOILERS — If to represent something is to give it power, then we can understand why some audiences have been sceptical about Film and TV’s latest preference for spotlighting the uber-rich. This movement, termed “Eat-the-Rich” cinema, has been heralded by movies and shows such as HBO’s Succession (2018-2023), Parasite (2019), and Knives Out (2019), whose critical and commercial acclaim later galvanised the releases of similarly anti-capitalist commentaries such as Triangle of Sadness (2022), and The Menu (2022).
The truth is, while we lambast the rich and lampoon their out-of-touch ridiculousness, we are also endlessly taken by them. We hate them because we want to be them. We reproach their lack of basic humanity yet aspire to their higher ways of life. While Eat-the-Rich films bring out the extent of our fraught attitudes, they do little to suggest that we may transcend them. Moreover, their dual interests to be at once sociological studies and aesthetic works often undercut each other. In this way, Satyajit Ray’s 1958 film The Music Room and its meditative arthouse treatment of its wealthy protagonist perhaps offer a way for film to reapproach such subject matter, one that preserves audiences’ dignity while calling for radical change.
The Music Room observes the last days of a Bengali landlord, the Huzur Biswambhar Roy, as he struggles to uphold the prestige of his estate amidst financial difficulties. Unlike the depraved characters we have come to expect in Eat-the-Rich films, the Huzur is a wholly sympathetic protagonist. He is a present father, a loving husband, protected by his servants’ goodwill toward him, and a bonafide patron of the arts. His meanest transgression involves posturing his status over Mahim Ganguly, a self-made moneylender who threatens his pride. Even so, the Huzur’s pettiness casts him as more human, prone to fits of jealousy.
If The Music Room allows us to consider the Huzur in all his merits and demerits, Eat-the-Rich films disempower us from making a realistic judgement of the rich. The latter’s heavy-handed contempt for the rich results in over-the-top portrayals, preventing any analogy to real life. In Succession, the Roy family is scandalised, their legacy literally founded on a tabloid news corporation. In Parasite, the wealthy Mrs. Park is infantilised and an utterly helpless parent, outsourcing her role as a mother to tutors, art therapists, and home caretakers. In the end, these exaggerated representations only enable its rich audience to dissociate from them, relieved about their relative rectitude. Meanwhile, they provide everyone else with an idealised villain, producing for us a false sense of catharsis, feeding our Eat-the-Rich appetites.
The possibility that satire might be an incompatible genre for movies about the rich opens up how we can better attend to such subject matter. To this question, The Music Room offers a crooning, sentimental character study. The Huzur’s tumultuous emotional states play out in three acts, each act punctuated by a lasting musical performance. Just as the Huzur affords these performances their entire length, staying his attention to the end, we too afford his character proportionate respect. In turn, we maintain our own dignity, in what might otherwise have been a cheap jump to spectate a rich man’s fall of grace.
The Huzur keeps his attention on the musical performance
Another way The Music Room subverts our expectations of films about the rich is through sound. In his essay “Dense Clarity – Clear Density”, Walter Murch (two-time Academy Award winner for Best Sound Mixing) describes a difference between encoded and embodied sound, or more simply, between language and music. While language delivers codifiable meaning, music is meaning itself experienced directly. These two ways to think of film sound also define the opposing strategies that Eat-the-Rich and The Music Room use to populate their soundscapes.
In Triangle of Sadness, Woody Harrelson’s El Capitan and Zlatko Buric’s Dimitry find themselves in an intensely highfalutin quote-off. As they philosophise against their own governments, Dimitry points out the irony of their situation, “A Russian capitalist, and an American communist”. Full of clever repartee, Eat-the-Rich films try to expose characters’ linguistic, logical, and moral failings with each turn of phrase. However, this overstimulating approach only further accentuates the exciting world of the super-rich. By inviting us into the specific reality of the upper class, these films gratify our desire to be a part of those conversations.
In contrast, The Music Room resonates with music. Music is a phenomenon that is both universal and subjective. Its meaning transcends across languages and cultures and yet, it invokes many different imaginations. In the film, the first of three musical performances features singer Begum Akhtar, also known as the “Queen of Ghazals”, as she showcases one such ghazal, a type of ode to romantic love and loss. As she plays on the surbahar, a Hindustani string instrument, she warbles, “It is all around, black clouds”. Although the opening scene of the film already sets us up to expect a tragic ending, through this piece of musical foreshadowing, we still try to interpret within it the different outcomes.
Begum Akhtar, Queen of Ghazals, sings, “It is all around, black clouds.”
The second musical performance further enshrouds the story with a feeling of possibility and uncertainty. It is a Muslim Khyal, a performance style that focuses on the singer’s technical strength and improvisational skill rather than the song lyrics. The name “Khyal” comes from the Persian word for “imagination”, reflecting its potential to evoke its audience’s creativity. As the second singer’s vocalisations shift into his throat, it releases a unique unworldly timbre, a deep spiritual voice that unlocks our awareness of the non-visible world. This shift in our perception increases our sensitivity to the superstitious symbols that appear as the music crescendos. A storm brews. Lightning flashes outside the window. The Huzur paces up and down the corridor, waiting for his wife and son to return from their voyage. The chandelier swings left and right aggressively. An insect flails and drowns in a goblet of wine. Here, music and omen become one, as they both elicit in the audience a profound yet open-ended sense of fear.
The chandelier lights dim.
Where Eat-the-Rich films demystify the cultural intrigue toward the rich, The Music Room festers in it. Perhaps Satyajit Ray’s best stroke in The Music Room is this mysticism he creates around the Huzur’s estate. Instead of entreating to know the gilded inner workings of that class, the film abandons the Huzur in his alienated state of wealth. After the third and final musical performance ends, on which the Huzur has squandered his last financial reserves, he stands alone in the room, looking up at the chandelier. To his horror, the lights in the chandelier dim. He makes the connection between the wavering lights and his diminishing power. Finally, we see the tragedy of his character: Lost in his rarefied world, he can no longer tell fiction from reality, symbols of status from true worth, the metaphor of his noble bloodline from the fact that for a long time, he has already been bleeding out.