Whenever you see colour, (don’t) think of Ray

Vishnupriya Sengupta | Updated on June 19, 2020

Hue and cry: Recent attempts at colouring scenes from two films in Ray’s Apu Trilogy have sparked a debate   -  S. SIVA SARAVANAN

Satyajit Ray’s nuanced cinema is not black and white; it should be, some diehard fans insist

* Two films that are a part of Ray’s Apu Trilogy — Pather Panchali (1955), and Apur Sansar (1959) are being shown in a new light

* Apu Trilogy has always ruled Bengali cinema, and needs no leg-up

An astrologer had once told a mother that her son would gain fame with the “use of light”. The prediction was spot on. The multifaceted auteur Satyajit Ray went on to mould light and create memorable cinema. But little did Ray — or perhaps even the seer — know then that in 2020, the film-maker’s birth centenary year, some of his timeless classics would be shown in a new light.

Aniket Bera, assistant professor at the University of Maryland, US, and Sriram Raja, an alumnus of the Film and Technology Institute of India, Pune, have tried their hand at colouring clips from two films that are a part of Ray’s Apu Trilogy — Bera experimenting with Pather Panchali (1955), and Raja with Apur Sansar (1959). There are others, too, who have coloured — and shared — clips from the films.

Widely circulated on social media, the videos have sparked a heated debate between purists and non-conformists on colouring Ray’s black-and-white (B&W) classics. “It’s a gimmick,” fumes the actor Soumitra Chatterjee, who played Apu in Apur Sansar. “Let’s just see what colour would have looked like,” counters a yay-sayer. Aficionados of Artificial Intelligence (AI) — the technology used to turn B&W cinema into colour — are, meanwhile, enthusiastically waiting for more.

It isn’t the first time, of course, that a B&W classic has been washed in colour. Mughal-e-Azam (1960) was given a makeover 16 years ago. Many argued then that it was an attempt to rekindle interest in the period film. But the Apu Trilogy, based on Bengali writer Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s much loved work, has always ruled Bengali cinema, and needs no leg-up.

Chatterjee, for one, believes the experimentation serves no purpose. “This is ridiculous. The colourisation will surely not reflect the original colours. Then why mutilate the essence of these films? Why don’t they start colouring Charlie Chaplin’s films?”

Bera has said that lending colour by AI application is his way of paying tribute to Ray in the film-maker’s centenary year. But there are a great many people — like Chatterjee — who wish he hadn’t. “Ray was drawn to natural lighting. Being organic, pure and minimalistic were the key components of his art. In the colour clips, the skin tones and the play of light and shadow look skewed. The sequences look unnatural and European, far removed from Bengal’s rural setting,” says director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, who released a short cinematic tribute to Ray to mark his 100th birthday on May 2. The colouring of films, he says, can at best be accepted as an experiment, but not as an alternative.

Bera, however, had told the media that he was not looking at his work as an alternative. “I wanted to see how it would have looked if I was on the set of Pather Panchali in colour. I wanted to see if AI could predict what the colours would have been,” he told The Indian Express in a recent interview.

But just what was the need, the Ray fan club grumbles. “Any experiment needs to have a mission statement. There has to be a conceptual basis for an experiment. In this instance I didn’t find one, so this experiment doesn’t excite my curiosity,” writer Amit Chaudhuri holds.

AI advocates, on the other hand, stress that they are interested in the outcome because it documents the potential of technology. “AI is a tool to work with, and doesn’t surpass human intelligence,” stresses Joshraj Sen, a fourth semester engineering student. “I would be curious to watch the film just to see AI’s application.”

Some argue that they are all for experimentation, as long as the original remains intact. Do not draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, but let a thousand reproductions portray La Gioconda in the way artists and others see her, pulling her out of her 16th-century confines.

Colouring, however, doesn’t always bear the stamp of moving with the times. Just as a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film would lose its vibrancy in black and white, these classics in colour could take away from the starkness of the story being told — that of rural deprivation in the case of Pather Panchali, and about a grieving young widower in Apur Sansar.

“An artist usually works with the tools available to him at that point in time, and those tools govern the entire mood and aesthetics of that work of art,” says Ankur Guha, who is completing his master’s from the Royal College of Art, London. “If colour is to be reintroduced with modern technology, special care has to be taken to complement the light and shadow of the original.”

Film-maker Goutam Ghose believes that watching old classics in colour is like viewing a replica of Michelangelo’s David. “Such nuanced films deserve nuanced treatment. It is absurd to see Sarbajaya [Apu’s mother] suddenly wearing a black bindi when it is actually meant to be red,” he says.

His first film Maa Bhoomi — shot in black-and-white — had a sequence showing a trade union strike. Instead of red flags, Ghose used green ones with the hammer-and-sickle symbol printed on them — so that the flags looked dark and stood out. All this needs to be factored in when a film is coloured, he says.

Else, it will simply assume an artificial air — intelligence notwithstanding.

Vishnupriya Sengupta is an independent researcher and works for a professional services firm

Published on June 19, 2020

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