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The Dramatic Story Behind Satyajit Ray’s 50s Masterpiece ‘The Apu Trilogy’

The Dramatic Story Behind Satyajit Ray's 50s Masterpiece 'The Apu Trilogy'

The more I’ve gotten to know Peter Becker, the President of the Criterion Collection and partner in Janus Films, the more I appreciate his virtues. Like many successful people, he is smart, tireless and knowledgeable, but that doesn’t come close to capturing his passionate drive to restore and present the best films in the world.

In short, he’s obsessed. And patient. And perfectionist. He hangs on for years until a movie is right, restored and ready to be shared with the rest of us. He leaves no detail unexamined. And people trust his dedication to the original intentions of the filmmaker. Will we ever see the right and proper version of Orson Welles’ fractured masterpiece “Chimes at Midnight”? Watch this space.

READ MORE: How a Near-Pristine 35mm Print of Orson Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight” Was Found

As the years go by, retrieving archival prints and finding original negatives is the great treasure hunt as film preservationists become scientists and chemists in the fight against time. Technology, too, is an ally, as 4K digital prints are the endgame. “An amazing amount of preservation and restoration is by dedicated, talented people conducting experiments,” Becker told me in a phone interview, “learning how to take care of our cinema heritage. We all benefit from the work of those people, even when we at Criterion are responsible for the impetus, the final stages of digital restoration and release.”
Now Criterion has helped to restore one of the great classic trilogies, Bengali writer-director Satyajit Ray’s “The Apu Trilogy,” three black-and-white films based on the novels of Bibhutibhushan Banerjee shot in India in the 50s. All three were scored by musical genius Ravi Shankar, later friend of The Beatles and father of Norah Jones. Martin Scorsese has called watching the films “one of the great cinematic experiences of my life.”  And Akira Kurosawa said, “never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or moon.”

-“Pather Panchali” (“Song of the Little Road”), the self-made filmmaker’s naturalistic first feature in 1955, was made after the young Ray saw the films of Jean Renoir and was inspired by such Italian neorealist films as “The Bicycle Thief.” Filmmaker John Huston saw the film in India and got it booked at MoMA, where buzz reached Cannes programmers. “Panchali” won the prize “Best Human Document” at Cannes in 1956, and played in New York for eight months, winning Best Foreign Film from the National Board of Review in 1957. 

-“Aparajito” (“The Unvanquished”) came the next year, following the growing Apu from the country to the city Varanasi and his studies in Kolkata (Calcutta). It won three prizes at the Venice Film festival in 1957 including the Golden Lion–the only sequel to do so.

-“Apur Sansar” (“The World of Apu”) followed Ray’s “The Music Room” and takes budding writer Apu (Ray regular Sumitra Chatterjee) into his 20s, his romantic awakening with a woman (Sharmila Tagore) and parenthood. It won Best Foreign Film from the National Board of Review in 1959.
The dramatic story of this film’s preservation highlights the heroism of the archivists over the years who hang on to every shred of what might someday make all the difference in restoring a film. “The key with film is you can’t restore what’s already been lost,” said Becker. “Somebody has to save it.”

READ MORE: Peter Becker on Why The Beatles Matter to the Future of Repertory Film 

Why is bringing these films to the public after six decades so important? “Ray was the Indian representative of the Golden Age of Arthouse Cinema,” said Becker. “He was legitimately the heir to Renoir and Rossellini and a humanist filmmaker of the first order. His films were celebrated around the world. The arrival of ‘Pather Panchali’ at MoMA 60 years ago and a year later at Cannes represented an opening of the world to the cinematic audience that had become accustomed to seeing Europe and Japan. Because he applied the principles of Italian neorealism he built a global cinema bridge back and forth between Europe and India. Bengal in film doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a window into a past time. It seemed remote even then, when we didn’t have as many images from all around the world.”

From “Pather Panchali” through “Apu Sansar,” we track a single life from early childhood to adulthood. The trilogy is not dissimilar to Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” but rather than one actor playing the character there are four actors playing Apu. We not only see the boy growing up but a filmmaker coming into his own.

About the films:

Ray grew up as a talented graphic artist from an educated family in Calcutta, the intellectual and artistic center and the capitol of the Raj influx of western culture. Ray was an illustrator of short stories and screenplays but primarily designed children’s book covers. When Jean Renoir was in Calcutta looking for young Anglo-Indian actresses for “The River,” Ray volunteered to be the French filmmaker’s weekend location scout and guide. Renoir encouraged Ray to follow his dream of adapting “Pather Panchali,” which he had illustrated.

After working in the art department of an ad agency and writing amateur screenplays, Ray and his wife relocated to London for six months, where they ingested 99 movies. Inspired by the neorealists, he decided to make a film about the India he knew using people drawn from the real world rather than actors shooting on backlots. Ray wrote the script on the boat home and began putting together “Pather Panchali.” 

“This was not the studio version,” said Becker. “Ray is directing for the first time, his amateur team have never worked on a feature film before, his cinematographer has never handled a movie camera. And he pulls key players together who will make all three films. Ray makes the film over the course of years in stolen time with whatever money he can raise, stopping to raise more. Because it was made over such a long period of time, nothing feels rushed, there’s a beautiful patterning of the rhythm of his shots. He has an authentic voice from the beginning. We see his command growing naturally with his community of collaborators. The music by Ravi Shankar is key.”

The global awareness brought by the trilogy boosted Shankar’s fame in the West. The Guardian ranks the “Pather Panchali” film score as the fourth greatest of all time. 

About the restoration:
Becker has wanted to release these films since he started Criterion, the same year, 1993, that three prized “The Apu Trilogy” original negatives were burned in a nitrate fire that raged through the Hendersons film lab warehouse in South London. 

At the time, the “Apu” rights weren’t available; they were spread around to different producers. Becker kept chasing them over the decades: “It took a long time to secure the rights. Once we did [in 2013], we started to research the materials, which is a normal practice for us. We began to poke around who had what. There wasn’t much material in India at all, everything had moved somewhere else. The first place we went was the Academy Film Archives at AMPAS. I knew they were holding a lot of film. There had been a reconstruction of Ray’s films done by Merchant/Ivory and Sony in 1994-5, and there was a bunch of film at the British Film Institute and in our own vaults.”

A key move for Criterion was opportunistically picking up Image Entertainment’s vast video library (from AudioBrandon, Films Inc. and others) after no one wanted to pay the print storage bills anymore. Criterion persuaded Hayden Guest at the Harvard Archives to inspect and catalogue the material. Buried in the vaults were pre-print elements, fine grain and dupe negatives for “Pather Panchali” and “Aparajito.”  At the time, Becker was hoping they’d be able to do better.

So Criterion kept looking; they also had material they had saved from Janus. And there were uncatalogued materials at the Academy. It turned out they had the remnants of what had been saved from the Henderson film lab fire. “We thought the film had been completely destroyed, ” said Becker. “We had no idea anybody had saved any film from the fire.” The Academy, having given Ray a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, wanted to restore many of his films, including “The Apu Trilogy.” The negatives stored temporarily at Hendersons had been en route to the Academy, so they asked them to send every scrap, including the burned remains of his films, and then saved them for 20 years. “It’s what they do,” said Becker. “They stepped up.”

When the Academy opened the cans, the film was too fragile to unspool, “which could damage the flaky celluloid which was falling apart and brittle,” said Becker. And so there began research to find somebody who they had confidence could work with this film. That lab turned out to be the L’Immagine Ritrovata at the Cineteca di Bologna, a restoration facility “with the highest principles and standards,” said Becker. “They felt confident they could rehydrate the film enough to examine and determine what if anything was salvageable.”

In this case, the technology and knowhow of 2013 was far advanced from what it was in 1993. The Italian lab had become experts at how to deal with actual celluloid and digital and physical film repair. They rehydrated the film, spending nearly 1000 hours repairing all the burnt sprockets. Heat cans conduct heat and celluloid is fragile. They had to test whether the image looked better scanned pinless and flat or pin registered on sprockets. In this case they went with the pin register and made a laborious effort with an exacto knife, cutting off old sprockets and making new ones, removing tape and glue and lacquer. The wax bonded negative emulsion reaches a melting point: tape is different from film stock so they ripple and warp through the reels. On the sides of the cans reached by the fire, there was much more burning than the sides against the wall; the two sides of the reel were warped and twisted. “So the picture would squeeze in and out,   pulsing like a heartbeat,” said Becker.

Once the film was rehydrated, unspooled and reconstructed, they could scan the original negative. “That’s the most beautiful that you can possibly get,” said Becker. “By the time we’re done we had about 40% of usable surviving elements for ‘Pather’ and 60% for ‘Aparajito.’ That’s a big deal. The imagery is gorgeous. And other heroic people saved replacement materials that were also very high quality. “There’s something almost sacred about an original negative,” said Becker. “You can just feel it. To have preserved that much of it is amazing and would not have been possible if people hadn’t saved the films.”

Alas the original negative for “Apur Sansar” was completely destroyed. So its restoration is comprised of a fine grain and a safety dupe negative.

At that point the Criterion lab kicked in with their own 4 K digital restoration lab which has been doing work since the 90s to bring these restorations via DCPs to the big screen. “It’s greater than film resolution,” said Becker. Criterion takes pride in putting together all the elements, matching them and restoring the physical damage –the normal defects when a film hasn’t been through a fire–sprocket tears and bad splices, normal and native to old original negatives.

But Criterion’s specialty is to “take care of the film itself with a light touch,” said Becker, “to not use automated tools to scrub out everything including the grain, to make decisions about whether this fix is perceptible. If it is, we try a different one until it’s imperceptible or we show the damage, so you can see the texture and luminosity and energy in the original film. That’s an important part of the process and makes things take longer until we see the films on the big screen.”

Becker harbors no romantic sense of loss of the 35 mm age. The landscape has changed. The old days of 35 mm prints — despite activists like Quentin Tarantino — are gone. “May they rest in peace,” said Becker. “You don’t need prints that cost money stored in a warehouse after the run. The advantage of the DCP age is it makes it possible to release films in a way you never could in the old days. To strike a black-and-white subtitled print might cost us $5000. To open a specialty film in limited theaters realistically, every print you make had to play out quite a lot to earn it back. It’s an amazing new era.”

Thus, last summer’s Beatles’ 50th anniversary 4K restoration of “A Hard Day’s Night” on 102 screens proved that even a black-and-white classic in the age of DCP could be blasted nationwide with a huge event campaign–and gross $700,000. “You can expand the release to markets that you do not usually hit and make a national event,” said Becker. 

Needless to say that’s what Criterion hopes to accomplish, if on a smaller scale, with “Apu,” which will hit some 20-30 cities. “It doesn’t work for everything,” Becker said. “You need something that is worthy of the audience’s attention. You have to keep the promise. So you don’t miss the chance of seeing one of the greatest films of all time.”

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