Ris­ing from the ashes: The films of Satya­jit Ray

Pasatiempo - - PASA REVIEWSSCREEN GEMS - — Priyanka Ku­mar

The Apu Tril­ogy: Pather Pan­chali, Apara­jito, and The World of Apu; not rated; in Ben­gali with sub­ti­tles; Jean Cocteau Cinema, 4 chiles

It hap­pens rarely, but when it does, we’re all in­trigued about how they did it. Some artists raise the stan­dard of what a work of art can be: Leo Tol­stoy did this for the novel, no­tably in War and Peace and Anna

Karen­ina; Satya­jit Ray did this for cinema, par­tic­u­larly in The Apu Tril­ogy. Be­gin­ning May 29, the Jean Cocteau Cinema will run the newly re­stored tril­ogy, giv­ing Santa Feans an op­por­tu­nity to see all three films — Pather Pan­chali (1954), Apara­jito (1955), and The World of Apu (1959) — that make up Ray’s master­piece.

The aura of the au­teur was so dom­i­nant in Ray’s time that au­di­ences over­look the fact that some of his best films are lit­er­ary adap­ta­tions. The Apu Tril­ogy is adapted from two au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­els, writ­ten in Ben­gali by Bib­hutib­hushan Bandy­opad­hyay.

Pather Pan­chali is the story of a priest, Har­i­har, his wife, Sar­ba­jaya, and their chil­dren — Apu and Durga — who eke out an ex­is­tence in a vil­lage in Ben­gal. When Har­i­har trav­els away from the vil­lage to earn a bet­ter living, his fam­ily tries to sur­vive as best they can in the in­terim. Over half a cen­tury ago, phys­i­cal dis­tances iso­lated us; to­day, be­ing über-con­nected via tech­nol­ogy can, sur­pris­ingly, have the same ef­fect. Apu and Durga have hard­scrab­ble lives, but there is po­etry in their iso­la­tion, as they wan­der through the vil­lage land­scape or watch trains, and the screen hums with their joys as vi­brantly as it first did 60 years ago.

Ray was a twenty-some­thing graphic artist when he was hired to il­lus­trate Bandy­opad­hyay’s novel. He be­gan to dream of trans­lat­ing the story to film and got the rights from Bandy­opad­hyay’s widow. Fi­nanc­ing his first film was a long strug­gle: Pro­duc­ers came and went, and at one point, Ray pawned his wife’s jew­elry to shoot a few scenes. Funds ran out, and shoot­ing stalled for a year — later, Ray cred­ited this set­back as a time when he was able to con­sider more deeply how he wanted to shoot the film. Af­ter some in­flu­en­tial con­tacts in­ter­vened, the gov­ern­ment of West Ben­gal came on board to fi­nance the rest of the project.

Dur­ing a stay in Lon­don in 1950, Ray had seen Vit­to­rio De Sica’s The Bi­cy­cle Thief and was in­spired by the film’s ne­o­re­al­ism. Back in Ben­gal, Ray de­cided to shoot Pather Pan­chali on lo­ca­tion, in a vil­lage, di­verg­ing from the tra­di­tion of shoot­ing ev­ery­thing in a stu­dio. He re­cruited a young still pho­tog­ra­pher, Subrata Mi­tra, to shoot the film. At­tract­ing tal­ent seems to have been Ray’s strength. The tril­ogy’s black-and-white images have the sort of haunt­ing rich­ness that could yield a ma­jor photography ex­hibit. Ray also con­vinced Ravi Shankar to score the films. When Pather Pan­chali was first shown at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York City, it didn’t have sub­ti­tles yet. Still, the images and the mu­sic were so pow­er­ful that peo­ple were seen walk­ing out of the theater in tears.

Pather Pan­chali was so well-re­ceived in Ray’s life­time that he al­most re­sented its suc­cess; he made other films that were crit­i­cally suc­cess­ful but found it hard to outdo his first film in the public and crit­i­cal con­scious­ness. Martin Scors­ese saw the film on tele­vi­sion in 1959 and was moved by how it washed away cul­tural dif­fer­ences and left be­hind only “the hu­man­ity of it all.” Decades later, shortly be­fore Ray’s death in 1992, Scors­ese and pro­ducer Is­mail Mer­chant ini­ti­ated a cam­paign that led to Ray be­ing awarded the Life­time Achieve­ment Os­car. Ray’s ac­cep­tance speech, from his hos­pi­tal bed, was broad­cast dur­ing the Academy Awards cer­e­mony.

At the same time, the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences dis­cov­ered that there was barely enough clean footage of Ray’s work to string to­gether a mon­tage for the cer­e­mony. Af­ter Ray’s death, film preser­va­tion­ist David Shep­ard vol­un­teered to go to Ben­gal to study the state of his orig­i­nal neg­a­tives. Shep­ard found hap­haz­ardly stored neg­a­tives that were con­tam­i­nated with mold, dust, and scratches. “It’s hard to think of an­other world-class film­maker whose oeu­vre hangs by such a thin thread!” Shep­ard said.

In the 1990s, some of the com­mer­cially avail­able trans­fers of Ray’s films were so bad, the sub­ti­tles were barely read­able. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a “chill­ing” re­port about the state of Ray’s films, the Academy Film Ar­chive ini­ti­ated a preser­va­tion project to re­store his fil­mog­ra­phy.

One film­maker who clearly read the spir­i­tu­al­ity in Ray’s films is Ta­jik direc­tor Davlat Khudon­azarov. “Af­ter my first ex­pe­ri­ence with his films, I founded a club named af­ter him in the city of Dushanbe,” he said. “I would in­tro­duce his films with lit­tle ex­posés about cul­ture, and a lot of peo­ple got at­tracted to th­ese screen­ings, in­clud­ing kids ten and eleven years old. They came ev­ery Sun­day, and I showed them films — not nec­es­sar­ily Ray’s films — but films that were close in spirit to his.” He smiled as he re­mem­bered some­thing. “My daugh­ter was one of the mem­bers of this club. Re­cently, she told me that Ray’s films were like a school and those who went through that school all share some­thing. She said, ‘He changed the way we feel about living in this world.’ ”

Apara­jito is the most as­cetic film in the tril­ogy — the dia­logue is so sparse that si­lences take on mean­ing. Apu is still a child when the film be­gins, but most of the film is about his ado­les­cence and his re­la­tion­ship with his wither­ing and now wid­owed mother, Sar­ba­jaya. In many ways, Apu’s dilemma is uni­ver­sal — he is a

teenager torn be­tween the vil­lage and the city, be­tween loy­alty to an aging par­ent and be­gin­ning a new life.

To­day, it is the rare au­teur (last year’s Palme d’Or win­ner Nuri Bilge Cey­lan comes to mind) who al­lows us to ex­pe­ri­ence the lives of char­ac­ters in­stead of flash­ing them at us, who is in­ter­ested in what the land­scape has to say, and whose si­lences are as re­veal­ing as dia­logue. One rea­son Ray was able to give less weight to dia­logue is that he searched hard for the right im­age to con­vey mean­ing. In the way that cliché is ver­boten to a nov­el­ist who cares about her craft, Ray sought fresh images to deepen his au­di­ence’s un­der­stand­ing of the story, and he ex­panded the lan­guage of cinema. His pro­ces­sion of images help ex­plain why his films make a last­ing im­pres­sion. The Rus­sian film­maker An­drei Tarkovsky may be the grand­fa­ther of sear­ing im­agery, but Ray also gives us sto­ries that are more struc­tured and ac­ces­si­ble than Tarkovsky’s.

In The World of Apu, we at last en­ter the dy­namic world of Kolkata, the city where many of Ray’s land­mark films are set. We are in­tro­duced to Soumi­tra Chat­ter­jee, who plays the adult Apu, and Sharmila Tagore, who plays the woman Apu weds un­der ad­mit­tedly strange cir­cum­stances. Both ac­tors give lu­mi­nous, search­ing per­for­mances while do­ing a ver­sion of the early-mar­ried-life dance that shifts in tone from play­ful to se­ri­ous to grave. The World of Apu was the be­gin­ning of an al­most life­long col­lab­o­ra­tion the duo had with the direc­tor.

While Ray was adored in Ben­gal, he also faced per­cep­tion in parts of In­dia, and among the mid­dle class, that he was “ex­port­ing poverty.” The In­dian masses like to be en­ter­tained with bells and whis­tles, which trans­lates into melo­drama and col­or­ful song-and­dance se­quences — Ray’s films have mostly been too quiet for their tastes. Even French direc­tor François Truf­faut snubbed Pather Pan­chali as some­thing akin to UNICEF cinema, although he later changed his mind about Ray’s work. It is for­tu­itous that Ray found in­stant suc­cess on the in­ter­na­tional art film scene — that fact, along with strong box-of­fice re­ceipts in Ben­gal, al­lowed him to con­tinue mak­ing films.

The Apu Tril­ogy is hav­ing its mo­ment be­cause the Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion has re­leased a newly re­stored ver­sion. In 1993, sev­eral of Ray’s orig­i­nal neg­a­tives were shipped to the lab­o­ra­to­ries of Hen­der­son’s Film In­dus­tries in Lon­don. Not long af­ter, Hen­der­son had a cat­a­strophic ni­trate fire: 25 orig­i­nal neg­a­tives of Bri­tish clas­sics were de­stroyed and sev­eral of Ray’s films were burnt, in­clud­ing the orig­i­nal neg­a­tives of The Apu Tril­ogy. The burnt film cans of Ray’s films were sent to the Academy Film Ar­chive, where they were in stor­age for 20 years and were re­cently re­viewed for a restora­tion ini­ti­ated by Cri­te­rion’s lab. Parts of the neg­a­tives had burned to ash, and no com­mer­cial lab wanted to touch them. In one of the world’s pre­mier restora­tion fa­cil­i­ties in Bologna, tech­ni­cians re­hy­drated the neg­a­tives and put in al­most 1,000 hours to man­u­ally re­pair the us­able parts. Af­ter this painstak­ing ef­fort, 40 per­cent of Pather

Pan­chali and more than 60 per­cent of Apara­jito were re­stored di­rectly from the orig­i­nal neg­a­tives. The rest came from fine-grain pos­i­tives and du­pli­cate masters pre­served by Janus Films, the Academy, the Har­vard Film Ar­chive, and the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute. Cri­te­rion’s lab han­dled the dig­i­tal restora­tion, elim­i­nat­ing dirt, de­bris, warps, and cracks while keep­ing the grain and feel of the film.

To para­phrase Michael Po­gorzel­ski, direc­tor of the Academy Film Ar­chive, it’s ironic that Ray’s films deal with themes of per­ma­nence and change but film it­self is a frag­ile medium that changes and de­cays over time. Ne­glect and ac­ci­dents could well have dark­ened Ray’s time­less sto­ries, but the fore­sight and la­bor of ar­chiv­ists and cinema lovers has given us this once-ina-life­time op­por­tu­nity to see Ray’s films as the direc­tor meant them to be seen.

Left, Pi­naki Sen­gupta as Apu in Apara­jito Be­low, Soumi­tra Chat­ter­jee as Apu and Sharmila Tagore as Aparna in The World of Apu Op­po­site page, top, Uma Das Gupta as Durga in Pather

Pan­chali; bot­tom, Subir Ban­er­jee as Apu in Pather Pan­chali

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