The unbearable sterility of Pather Panchali in colour: Unpacking the row over changes to Satyajit Ray's masterpiece
The coloured version of Pather Panchali invited the ire of purists who wish to see Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece only in its original form
Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1956) is, almost by consensus, the film that Indian cinema would want the rest of the world to know it by. If it is not the truest India Ray’s film is depicting, it is still a recognisable India, described in an idiom acceptable to world cinema. Most other depictions of India in cinema are too coloured by Indian sentiments. The film has recently come into the news again because some segments of it have been coloured by researchers from the University of Maryland, using AI techniques.
This has naturally invited the ire of purists who wish to see Ray’s masterpiece only in its original form. On looking at the coloured segment, which deals with the early part of the film before Durga’s death, one sees that it is clearer and, in many ways a visual improvement upon the original, but it still creates a feeling of unease — superficially, the way the cleaning up of the Sistine Chapel some decades ago did, when it made Michelangelo’s colours brighter. But that was only a cleaning up, removing the grime we had become accustomed to, while this unease has a deeper and more legitimate reason.
The primary reason offered is that Ray is an auteur and the work of an auteur must not be tampered with, since what he or she intended, or the way he or she saw it, is of great importance to all subsequent viewers. This is no doubt true but Ray became an auteur through the film and we do not celebrate the film through him; rather, we celebrate Ray because of Pather Panchali and the film created the auteur.
The coloured segments that have been put on YouTube clock in at under three minutes and bits of the original film have been placed alongside. There is little doubt that the coloured version is prettier: the sky is blue, the grass is green, Apu and Durga are suitably attired in coloured clothes. The characters are as authentic as we would people in their social situation, but there is a gravity that is missing. The train sequence in the original film shows a black object against a grey field with white plumes representing kaash flowers. But now it is in blue green and white and the scene could be from today. It is always difficult to date the milieu in the film since the setting is so timeless but the colouring makes it seem contemporary.
Pather Panchali is such a monument to cinephiles that it is impossible for a first-time Indian viewer to see it without expectations and pre-conceptions. It is the Taj Mahal of Indian cinema and its legend heralds it. A question I often put to students when teaching cinema is whether the film could have been made before 1947 since it pertains to a time long before Independence. After some thought the answer that one invariably gets is a negative one. The reason this is so, I think, is that there are elements in the film that could not have come from a colonial subject. If Apu’s gaze is that of someone opening his eyes to the world for the first time, the world caught by that gaze is also correspondingly fresh.
Ray has not spoken of this but the film catches an India with a future ahead of it. It is not a particularly optimistic film but that only gives value to it since any knowledgeable Indian would have been aware that India’s progress as an independent nation would be fraught with obstacles: there was too much to be done with too few resources at hand. Even the film’s graininess is testament to the trying circumstances it was made under, an unwitting allegory of what the nation faced. When an old black and white classic is coloured using the latest technology at our disposal, we are unwittingly erasing a part of history, it would seem. Pather Panchali itself is evidence of a struggle, and colouration is a negation of that struggle.
That brings us to the viewing conditions under which classics in cinema should be exhibited. It would be silly to say that the grainy conditions of the prints should absorbed as such by film audiences but it would also be a reduction in the value of a film if it is taken out of film history and seen as an autonomous artifact. To draw a parallel, many of the masterworks of painting, sculpture or even music are ‘humanised’ by the evidences of the struggle that undelay them. The brush strokes of a Van Gogh painting or the scratches on a Rodin bronze are testament to the thought, the work and the artistic struggle. Consider what happens when a flute or violin composition is recreated electronically: the sound of air being blown or the scratching on the wire present in the original mechanical rendering is erased as though it were only ‘noise’ but it is this ‘noise’ that humanises the music, while the electronic reproduction, because it is ‘inhuman’, is also sterile.
That brings us to why the coloured version of Pather Panchali is so depressing to look at: by using AI to colour it, it has eliminated evidence of the human struggle that went into the film, thus making the coloured version look unbearably sterile.
MK Raghavendra is a well-known film critic and scholar
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Kapila Vatsyayan authored nearly 20 books on different forms of art and their histories in her long career. Some of her notable works include The Square and the Circle of Indian Arts (1997), Bharata: The Natya Sastra (2006), Dance in Indian Painting (2004), Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts (2007), and Transmissions and Transformations: Learning Through the Arts in Asia (2011).