Rising from the ashes: The films of Satyajit Ray
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