Calgary Cinematheque board member and programmer Sachin Gandhi delves into the importance of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy screening at Globe Cinema from August 13-20.
This August, Globe Cinema and The Edmonton Movie Club are presenting the 4K restoration of The Apu Trilogy, a landmark cinematic event of the year. This 4K restoration is a major achievement from both a film preservation and a film historical perspective. The restoration was complicated by the fact that most of the original film negatives were burned by a nitrate fire in London (1993). The salvaged fragments of the prints were sent to the Academy Film Archive but lack of technology to restore damaged film negatives meant the negatives had to wait almost two decades before a restoration could be attempted. The Criterion Collection started work on the restoration in 2013 but further challenges arose due to lack of commercial processing facilities that could handle 35mm prints in such a condition. This is where L’Immagine Ritrovata (Bologna, Italy) stepped in and their technicians were able to start restoring fragments. Missing film segments were substituted by using fine-grain masters and duplicate negatives preserved by Janus Films, the Academy, the Harvard Film Archive, and the British Film Institute. The Criterion Collection spent a further six months in completing the digital restoration. Technically, this restoration work has been one of the most challenging international operations in history. From a film historical perspective, this work is hugely important because the three films that make up the trilogy, Pather Panchali (Songs of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), are essential cinematic works from one of the greatest films directors in the world. For many film fans, Indian Cinema began with the works of Satyajit Ray. Akira Kurosawa’s famous words “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” perfectly describe the admiration Kurosawa had for Ray.
Before Satyajit Ray became a director, he was a passionate cinephile. He devoured films and any film writing he could get his hands on and helped establish the Calcutta Film Society in 1947-48 as a means of improving the quality of film appreciation in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Crucially, an encounter with Jean Renoir in Calcutta 1949 gave him some insight into filmmaking but Ray learnt on the job during the making of his first film Pather Panchali as did his cinematographer Subrata Mitra. This on the job learning is a huge reason why Pather Panchali and his subsequent films evoke such powerful emotions and are bathed in everyday reality similar to that of Italian neorealist cinema. Since Ray was born and bred in a city, he knew nothing about village life. He depended heavily on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s book for shooting Pather Panchali but once Ray arrived in the village to shoot the film, he had to readjust his camera on a day-to-day basis. He found the rhythm of life in a village eye-opening and changed his shooting to match life as it occurred before him. Ray wanted to capture the truth and as a result, Pather Panchali is a living breathing film which exudes life in every shot, an aspect continued in his other films, especially in Aparajito and Apur Sansar.
There is a gap of four years in between the release of Pather Panchali (1955) and Apur Sansar (1959). In this duration, Ray matured as a filmmaker from learning to direct his first film to becoming a masterful confident director. Similarly, these three films also follow the growth and maturation of Apu, from birth to a young child (Pather Panchali) to a young teenager (Aparajito) to a grown man who becomes a father himself (Apur Sansar). Each film is tied to the growth of Apu but the films also depict universal aspects about life, coming of age, challenges of adult life, the difficult moral lessons and responsibilities that life thrusts upon a person. Put together, the three films complete a circle of life. The depiction about life resulted in the Cannes Film Festival awarding Pather Panchali a human document award in 1956, while all three films collected further awards at global film festivals.
Each film in the trilogy stands on its own due to how Ray approached his work. After he completed the first film, he had no intention of making any subsequent Apu films. That is a big reason why each film still feels like an independent chapter but all three films complete to form a full story not only about Apu but human life in general. This new 4K restoration offers a great chance for newcomers to discover the works of Satyajit Ray for the first time. For those who have seen these films previously, this restoration is unlike the previous released versions as the cleaned up frames allow earlier missing details to be seen for the first time. It truly feels like watching the films with a new eye or as Akira Kurosawa said, watching “the sun or the moon”.