What is evident from the debate surrounding whether Pather Panchali should be dabbled into color or not is that the question doesn’t have easy answers.
After watching Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri De biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) in 1951, one 35-year-old artist was tempted to experiment with the visual medium of expression. But he couldn’t convince any Bengali producers to fund his film set in a rural countryside, a film based on a novel that lacked glamour or gloss. Despite these hurdles, this talented young man continued drawing covers for different books to make a living and started shooting his film with a bunch of totally new inexperienced cast. It took him three years to finish the film mostly due to the financial crunch. However this film, partially funded by the government of West Bengal, created history – it was the first Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Awards. The young director was Satyajit Ray as many of you know and the film was Pather Panchali (The Song of Road)which is now regarded as one of the milestones of not only Indian but the world cinema.
For Ray it was Ladri De Bicycette, for me it has been the Apu Trilogy. And before watching a number of Akira Kurosawa classics and The Bicycle Thief itself, I had never thought I’d ever take ‘films’ seriously. Then, Ingmar Bergman’s Personashowed me the power and potential of this ‘new’ medium of art. The emotional and inspirational bond I share with these early works of cinematic art has, therefore, instilled in me this confidence to set out on my own course like many before me. Their works were testimonies to their time and technology. As the contemporary mainstream cinema gets diluted in glamour of color, one should not forget these black and white classics were also the product of creative, compassionate and concerned minds trying to understand the role of man in the society and seeking reform through whatever they had in their hands at their time. They were not just story tellers but above all modern day philosophers, poets and painters who changed the world and other art forms in many ways. Yet the only difference between the great tradition and these new breed of auteurs was certainly their unconventional medium.
While Ray famously wedded art to truth in his films, I admit it is very difficult to find Satyajit Ray in local film stores. I remember searching Guru Dutt’s films in many film stores without any luck. Then at one film store when I finally located them, the owner thought it was for my father. When I said it was for me, the old man asked me what I did. It was hard to find an answer for this difficult question. I could only say, “I’m trying to write.”
Now, the X- and-Y generation of our time may finally get a chance to see Pather Panchali without feeling ‘pride or shame’ in December this year because it would be in color. But that is only if Sankranti Creations, which has already put colored versions of Mughal-e-Azam and Naya Daur to successful reruns, succeeds in its plan to ‘modernize’ this masterpiece much to the dismay of a small ‘minority’ within the industry that want to preserve the artistic integrity of such films. Mughal-e-Azamand Naya Daur doesn’t come anywhere near Pather Panchali. They are three important films in history of Indian cinema but even then any attempt to compare them is not intelligent. The Sankranti Creations’ third ‘choice’ to show off its talents and do ‘a favour’ to this film has certainly triggered concern among the lovers of world cinema. While we have reasons to worry, we also have time to stop that nightmare from becoming a unfortunate reality.
What is evident from the debate surrounding whether Pather Panchali should be dabbled into color or not is that the question doesn’t have easy answers. In late 1980s, American filmmakers, cinematographers and artists fought tooth and nail to stop one of the major studios, Turner Broadcasting System which owns rights to some of the best known classics, from its efforts to put color to these films. However, those who were opposed to coloring cinema had to settle down for a label on the new packages of the same films that stated that they have been materially altered. A notice like we have on covers of cigarette casings today: “This is a colorized version of a film originally marketed and distributed to the public in black and white. It has been altered without the participation of the principal director, screenwriter and other creators of the original film.” I doubt if the same dreadful fate awaits the classics of Indian cinema. I often wonder if the new generation of cinemagoers is afraid of black and white movies or the distributors that they won’t get returns for their money.
However, the campaign to ban colorization did get some success when the Congress agreed to initially place 25 American films on the National Film Registry as ”culturally, historically or esthetically significant”. In another incident related to the controversy, a high French court had blocked the first screening of a colored version of John Huston’s Asphalt Jungleciting that coloring would cause ”unmendable and intolerable damage” to the film’s integrity and infringed on the late director’s estate and moral rights in 1988. Until his death in 1987, Houston had lobbied Congress in favor of a law that would prevent coloring a film against its creator’s wishes. Huston had described watching the colored version of one of his own filmsThe Maltese Falcon, the first of noir films, as “disgustful”. In a videotape message for a Congress panel which was to decide whether a bill proposing to ban colorization of black and white films be introduced, he had complained, ”Why should this mindless insipidity be allowed? Why should Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, who were so careful about their images, be bushwacked by the coloroids?”
Yet, three years after Huston’s death, his gangster classic “Key Largo” was repackaged with the same ‘colorized’ tag which served no purpose than the ‘statutory warning’ printed on its cover.
The 1988 French court decision to block the screening of colored Asphalt Jungle was based on French copyright law according to which filmmakers had the right to control how their works were exhibited. Do we have any laws that protect films like Pather Panchali? I’m afraid we don’t. Sankranti Creations has unveiled its plan to work out an arrangement with the West Bengal government for sharing revenue generated from the screening of the tinted Pather Panchali. It is yet to be seen whether the West Bengal government upholds Ray’s moral artistic rights or not. However, Sandip Ray, his son, has been strongly opposed to the idea. He said his father never wished to color the film though he had some dissatisfaction with the editing of the first part of the film, according to Arup K De, CEO of the Satyajit Ray Society.
In his cover story ‘Hands Off’ published in the 8th Day (Sunday Statesman, April 6, 2008), Arun K De wrote that a host of actors and directors including Mrinal Sen, Pradip Mukhopadhyay, Barun Chanda, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Gautam Ghosh were opposed to the idea. He wrote, “For the question is not whether one should or should not add color to black-and-white movies, but whether a film chosen for color-transfer needs such a makeover at all. A Kolkata-based TV channel, 24 Ghanta, conducted an SMS survey on 28 March, and 96 per cent of those who responded said Pather Panchali needed no support of color to improve its quality or make it appear more attractive to contemporary viewers.” I believe the West Bengal government is listening and will respect the people’s will than permit Sankranti Creations, or for that matter anyone else, to mutilate ‘a poem in celluloid’ out of greed for some extra bucks alone.
Today the debate is about coloring the films but where will this lead us tomorrow? With the development in digital technology, we now have enough ‘resources’ to technically ‘improve’ these films. ”Why not jazz up a little the music in ‘Gone with the Wind?’ Kids are today heavily into heavy metal, so let’s replace the soundtrack with electric guitars and drums,” was all a ‘frustrated’ director Milos Forman could say when he was lobbying to ban colorization of the past cinematic works back in 1987. Film, due to its mass production capabilities, could be cut and paste and used again and again in different forms and for different purposes by different people. One argument from those who favor such trend is that they are producing new cinematic works in one hand and also not destroying the original. But then the choice is ours because the confrontation of the two choices is soon going to become a reality.
At one side, there are parties that want to commercially exploit a piece of art. On the other, there are very few but powerful voices fighting to protect the artistic integrity of such works. Is it justifiable to colorize a film just to suit the taste of contemporary viewers? I really don’t feel so because a film won’t be a film at all after that kind of mutilations. Those with even a slight respect of such great filmmakers and their works vow that it would be completely unacceptable. It is thus that the government of West Bengal needs not to think twice to outrightly reject Sankranti Creations’ proposal. The dilly-dallying in publicizing its official decision is only adding worries to everyone awaiting their disposition with great concern. When even today’s filmmakers often prefer to return to the black and white stock to shoot poignant tales, one wonders what makes Sankranti Creations anticipate support for its evil proposition.