"A haughty spirit before a fall," or rather a local proverb for Satyajit Ray's Lear: "Even dead, an elephant is still worth a fortune." The grand symbol is the ornate chandelier that tinkles and sways behind the opening credits like the unfirm crown above the ruined rajah (Chhabi Biswas), the introductory dissolve finds him listless with hookah on the roof of the dusty colonial castle. The place has seen richer days, a flashback reveals the landlord as a proud aesthete and patron of melodic arts—his feudal inheritance dwindles with each lavish recital, "my prestige is at stake." The nemesis (Gangapada Basu) is the moneylender next door ("a self-made man, no pedigree"), his trucks kick up dust over the solitary pachyderm lolling in the barren fields. Old and modern orders, an insistent Ray theme (Devi, Pratidwandi, The Chess Players), a camera's newfound classicism: It cranes down from the candle in the crystal cup to the seated audience before the concert, a wall-sized mirror expands the deep-focus composition. (A panning shot notices the cloddish neighbor growing fidgety in the middle of the song.) Insectoid omens abound (a bug in the drink, a spider on the portrait), "the wick to keep the family burning" is drenched during a storm and torpor takes root, the last hurrah blows the cobwebs and dims the lights. Three performances (thumri, khayal and kathak) give the tale its form and Ray his view of palliative art in the face of changing times, the protagonist's ear is offended by the stutter of an electric machine as well as by the Colonel Bogey March drifting in from the window. The "king of the mountain" at dawn with his terrors is the concluding image, just the balance between grandeur and delusion for a masterfully ironic miniature between Sunset Blvd. and Il Gattopardo. "Oh, you and your airs!" Cinematography by Subrata Mitra. With Padma Devi, Kali Sarkar, Tulsi Lahiri, Pinaki Sengupta, and Roshan Kumari. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce