By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
In 1955, a first-time Indian director released a film he had struggled with for nearly three years. Shot whenever Satyajit Ray could marshal up some money, “Pather Panchali” became the first film in the director’s celebrated “Apu Trilogy,” which went on to influence film around the world. Newly restored 4K print of “Pather Panchali” and its two sequels, “Aparajito” (1957) and “Apu Sansar” (1959) play starting July 24th at SIFF Cinema SIFF’s Artistic Director Carl Spence took some questions over email.
NWAW: What are your earliest experiences with the trilogy? Where did you see it first, and what were your first impressions of the films overall?
Spence: I first saw Satyajit Ray’s films on VHS and despite not seeing it on the big screen, the films opened my eyes to the possibilities of cinema.
NWAW: What had director Satyajit Ray done before, and what influenced him to make this trilogy?
Spence: “Pather Panchali,” the first film in the trilogy, was his first. Prior to this he had worked as a fiction writer, publisher, illustrator, calligrapher, music composer, graphic designer, and film critic. His short stories and novels that he authored were primarily aimed at a younger audience. He created a number of popular science fiction characters as part of his fiction stories.
NWAW: How does the trilogy tie together as a whole?
Spence: They are based on two Bengali novels written by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay: “Pather Panchali” (1929) and “Aparajito” (1932). The original music for the films was composed by Ravi Shankar. The three films comprise a “coming of age” narrative in the vein of a bildungsroman; they describe the childhood, education, and early maturity of a young Bengali named Apu (Apurba Kumar Roy) in the early part of the 20th century. The “Apu Trilogy” influenced countless filmmakers across the world from Akira Kurosawa to Jean Luc-Godard, and contemporary filmmakers such as Wes Anderson. You could say it provided an introduction to future cinema, combining the previously established aesthetics of European and Western Cinema styles infusing them with his own unflinching view of his own origins and his culture.
NWAW: How does this film relate to the Parallel Cinema movement in Indian cinema?
Spence: Satyajit Ray was part of the Parallel Cinema movement and most responsible for bringing the Indian New Wave to the forefront of cinema to be presented and celebrated at major festivals around the world including Cannes and Venice. Parallel Cinema was the antithesis of major big budget Bollywood films. The Parallel Cinema movement began to form in the late 1940s and continue through the 1960s. This period was considered to be the Golden Age of Indian Cinema. Many of the filmmakers working in this movement borrowed stories and themes from Indian literature being published during this time. Some other filmmakers working in this movement include Ritwik Ghatak, Bimal Roy, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Chetan Anand, Guru Dutt and V. Shantaram.
NWAW: Who were Ray’s collaborators on the trilogy, and how did they influence the work as a whole?
Spence: For his first film Ray worked with collaborators who did not have any significant experience. Despite this a number of his crew from his first film went on to achieve great acclaim. including his art director Bansi Chandragupta and his cinematographer Subrata Mitra. “Pather Panchali” was actually shot over the course of three years because they did not have enough money to complete the film sooner and could only go into production while they had funds and then had to wait until they raised additional money. Ray did refuse to take financing from sources that demanded he change the script,and ignored advice from the government to incorporate a happy ending into the film. Ray did receive encouragement from the legendary filmmaker John Huston, who he met while Huston was in India scouting locations for “The Man Who Would be King.”
NWAW: Who masterminded the new restoration of the trilogy?
Spence: After Ray’s death at the age of 70 in 1992, there was an effort to preserve his films; the negatives of his films were moved to the Henderson’s Film Laboratories in South London. In 1993 a nitrate explosion sparked a disastrous fire and the negatives of the Apu Trilogy were severely damaged. The burned film was deemed unusable.
However, the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences preserved every scrap of the burned film. In 2013 in search of materials for new restorations of the films, the Criterion Collection learned of the long-forgotten negatives. Almost half of the surviving film negatives were salvageable and the quality is remarkable. At L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, the film was rehydrated, repaired, and scanned in at 4k resolution. Technicians spent nearly 1,000 hours reconstructing sprocket holes, and splices and removing glue, tape, and wax. At Criterion’s restoration lab “The Apu Trilogy” was put back together frame by frame and digitally restored.
NWAW: What are your overall impressions seeing them anew?
Spence: I haven’t seen them again yet but look forward to seeing them at the SIFF Cinema Uptown in the large house on the huge curved screen projected with our Sony 4K Digital Projector. I will definitely be in the audience! (end)
The “Apu Trilogy” plays July 24th-30th at SIFF. For details, visit http://www.siff.net/cinema/satyajit-rays-apu-trilogy.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.