Satyajit Ray's immortal classic Pather Panchali will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday, May 12, 49 years after it first earned international notice by winning the International Human Document prize at Cannes.
The audience at Cannes will see a restored version of Pather Panchali, an achievement that is perhaps as dramatic as the film itself. Aseem Chhabra first reported on the feat in India Abroad, the newspaper owned by rediff.com, last December. We reproduce that feature to mark the occasion, and to salute a movie whose quality has rarely, if ever, been surpassed in world cinema.
Last month (November 2004), the Asia Society, New York City, held a screening of Oscar-winning Indian director Satyajit Ray's first non-Bengali feature, Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977).
Ray's masterpiece -- in which two chess players (Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey) become obsessed with the game while their personal lives and the future of their home state Awadh fall into uncertainty -- was an obvious choice.
But there was a problem -- finding a print.
After an extensive search, Linden Chubin, associate director, cultural programs, Asia Society, tracked down one at the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Collection at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus.
The print was kept in a temperature-controlled vault at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' office in Beverly Hills, California. The vault holds all the Ray Collection's copies. The Academy has also restored second-generation negatives and positive prints of 15 films of the Bengali master.
It is the only complete collection of Ray's films in the world.
Under the guidance of the Ray Collection and its director, Dilip Basu, the films have traveled for retrospectives of the filmmaker's works to institutions such as the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the British Film Institute, London, and the Toronto Cinematheque.
Earlier this month (December 2004), to mark the 50th anniversary of Pather Panchali, Basu took the restored version to the 35th International Film Festival of India in Goa. The first Ray film's world premiere was held in April 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
Next year, the 58th Cannes Film Festival will host a tribute to Pather Panchali. The film bagged the International Human Document prize at Cannes in 1956.
The story of the efforts to preserve Ray's legacy involves a handful of dedicated people who realised the desperate need to save the filmmaker's works. And it involves one of the world's leading film institutions, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The story begins with the 1992 lifetime achievement Oscar awarded to Ray. Nearly 70 filmmakers from around the world, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Akira Kurosawa, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, backed Ray's nomination.
At the time, the filmmaker was hospitalised in Kolkata. Basu, a professor of history at UCSC and a family friend of Ray, carried the Oscar on behalf of the academy.
But before that, a major problem arose. Filmmaker and critic Richard Schickel was given the task of putting together a montage of scenes from Ray's films.
"There were barely any copies of Ray's films, in any form, available in North America," says Michael Pogorzelski, director of the Academy's Film Archives. "And the copies available were so poor in quality that most of them were deemed unusable by the show."
Schickel eventually used some of Basu's private collection of videotapes.
"Sandip (Ray's son) made videotapes of the television screenings of Ray's films," says Basu. "Or someone would give them to him and he would make a copy for me."
Basu says he often told Ray about the need to preserve his films. "He was aware of the condition of the films," Basu says, "But in the last years of his life, Ray's focus was elsewhere."
Realising the urgency, the Academy sent film preservation expert David Shepard for a fact-finding trip to India. Shepard arrived in the fall of 1992, a few months after Ray passed away.
He met Ray's son and wife. The American consulate hosted a party where Shepard met most of the producers who had worked with Ray.
At the do, Shepard screened a film he had worked on, the 1986 Academy Award-winning Precious Images. "What we were trying to get to them (the producers) was how exciting old films were and how important it was to spend money to preserve them," says Shepard from Hat Creek, California.
"They (the producers) realised they were sitting on important work. They didn't have money to invest, but they were willing to cooperate.
"The best material was of the films produced by R D Bansal," Shepard says. "He takes superb care of his material. The worst was Pather Panchali, owned by the West Bengal state government. They had done nothing except make every print off the original 1955 negative."
The negatives were in poor condition, subjected for years to the heat and humidity of Kolkata. "One producer had kept the negatives under his bed!" says Shepard.
If the Academy was concerned before Shepard's trip, his report (now part of the Ray Collection's archives) made alarm bells ring louder.
Shepard's report also got an Indian filmmaker intrigued. At the time the honorary Oscar was being planned for Ray, Ismail Merchant was exploring the possibility of bringing several of the director's films to the US.
Shepard had lunch with Merchant in Mumbai where the two talked about the condition of Ray's original negatives.
Merchant bought the rights to take six of Ray's negatives to be restored at the Henderson Film Laboratories, London. Unfortunately, a fire at the laboratories on July 3, 1993 destroyed the negatives of Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Apur Sansar, Jalsaghar, Devi and Teen Kanya.
Merchant contributed a portion of the cost to restore nine of Rays' films at the Academy. Having lost the negatives of some of Ray's greatest works in the fire, Michael Friend, the then director of the Academy's Film Archives, found decent quality prints and negatives in archives in Europe.
Merchant had a long association with Ray. The Bengali filmmaker helped edit the first Merchant Ivory production, The Householder, and composed the soundtrack of Shakespeare Wallah.
But Merchant's efforts to bring Ray's films to the US in the mid-1990s through Sony Pictures Classics won him admirers and detractors. "Mr Merchant is a merchant," says Shepard. "That is all I will say."
The fire created awareness about Ray's negatives, says Pogorzelski, who took over Friend's position at the Academy in 2000. They are now classified as national treasures in India. Only one negative can leave the country at a time.
"The negatives are given by individual producers for restoration and no rights are exchanged," adds Pogorzelski.
Since the initial Merchant Ivory Foundation funding, the Academy has been footing the bill for most of its efforts. However, The Film Foundation -- Scorsese's non-profit outfit to provide funds for film preservation -- sponsored the recent restoration of Nayak (1966).
Last year, the Academy restored Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1968). Pogorzelski and assistant Joe Lindner are now about to finish working on two of the director's short films, Kapurush and Mahapurush (1965).
"The idea behind the Ray preservation project was that we didn't want to choose what were his greatest films," says Pogorzelski. "We could have said, 'let's just pick the best films that Ray made and if nothing else make sure those are preserved.' That would have dictated what survived of Ray's films. It would not give the subsequent generations of critics and audiences the opportunity to decide for themselves which are his best films.
"That is why we decided that the only ethical thing to do would be to commit to preserving everything Ray made."
Ray is the only filmmaker whose entire works the Academy is committed to restore.
"We haven't said we will do all of John Ford's films, for instance," Pogorzelski says. "A lot of other institutions and studios have been taking care of that, especially of Hollywood filmmakers."
Restoring a film can cost from $7,000 for a short to $70,000 and even $100,000, says Basu. The process normally takes a year. Restoring Ray's longest film, Abhijan (1962), took a little longer.
Restoring a film often involves sleuthing around. In 2000, while restoring Seemabaddha (1971), Pogorzelski had to search for a colour sequence that appeared in the film originally, but was missing from most subsequent prints.
'The main character, Chatterjee, attends a screening of a commercial for his company's ceiling fans,' Pogorzelski explained in a press release announcing the restoration of the film. The minute-long scene was deleted from many prints made after the original release.
Eventually, an inter-positive of the sequence was recovered in India and used to create a new color negative. The scene was hand-spliced into the new prints the Academy was restoring.
Similar problems arose with the three-film montage Teen Kanya (1961). The film was originally released in the US as Two Daughters and excluded the Monihara segment. After much searching, Basu found an old distributor in Munich through a connection at the Berlin Cinematheque who had an un-subtitled print of Monihara.
The process of picking up negatives from producers and shipping them to California is facilitated by The Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Films in Kolkata, started by Basu's Ray Collection. Initial funding for the Society came from The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and UNESCO. Both the Society and the Collection were established in 1993.
One of the biggest supporters of the Collection is David W Packard, son of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard. Packard is a huge Ray fan and in the summer of 1999 brought the complete retrospective of the director's films to his Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, California. He recently loaned his $200,000 digital camera to the Ray Collection.
"We are having a Satyajit Ray art exhibition at our centre," says Basu, "It includes a montage of stills from Ray's life, his sketches from his storyboard notebooks. Most of them are in color, from Shatranj Ke Khilari, Ghare Baire and Hirak Rajar Deshey. We reproduced them with the digital camera loaned by Packard.
"Packard wanted to buy theatrical rights to all Ray films," Basu says. "But he does not want to do that until all the rights are cleared."
The distribution rights of Ray's films, especially in the US, remain foggy. Producers in India continue to make parallel deals with different distributors, says Basu.
One producer gave a handwritten note to a New York-based Bangladeshi distributor, authorizing him DVD rights to some of Ray's films, he points out.
The same producer then assigned similar rights to an Indian distributor in Los Angeles. In both cases, the distributors chose not to take the restored versions of the film.
In trying to secure negatives from producers, Basu has hit a roadblock with Suresh Jindal, the man behind Shatranj Ke Khilari. The film has not been restored. The Asia Society screened a copy.
"He (Jindal) tells me his negative is secure at the Technicolor laboratory in London. But I told him that even coloured negatives should be restored and saved. Otherwise the colour will fade."
At least, thanks to a few good men like Basu, the legacy of arguably India's greatest filmmaker will not fade away.