Monday, June 29, 2015

The Apu Trilogy

This is not a review, because I would not dare to review three of the greatest movies of all time. This is just a small update on my experience of watching the Apu Trilogy in a theater in Washington DC. But, first, this video should provide a little bit of background for those who do not know what this is all about:

Since I saw Pather Panchali for the first time, I have always wondered why the film quality was so bad. I mean, I have black and white English movies in my collection - To Kill a Mockingbird, Psycho, Roman Holiday to name a few - and all of them are of excellent quality. Did Satyajit Ray use poor quality film? Were his cameras bad? Or did the film get damaged over time? No one would bother watching a foreign film like Pather Panchali, I thought, if the picture quality was so bad. So when I saw that video above, I was naturally interested to know just how good the restoration was.

The restored film premiered at MoMA in New York City a few months ago, and then slowly started releasing across the US. Google told me the trilogy would run at E Street Cinemas in Washington DC during the last week of June. I decided to go watch at least one of the three.

"The theater would be empty except for the two of us," I jokingly told Poulami. I still remembered the time when I watched Chander Pahar in Fairfax with eight other people in the audience. Even earlier this year, four of us went to see the Hindi movie "Detective Byomkes Bakshy!" at a theater in Maryland and we were the only people there. Pather Panchali was releasing on a Friday at 4:15 p.m. We decided to catch the second show at 7:00 p.m. Accordingly, we reached there around 6 o'clock and bought two tickets. Then we went away to have our dinner.

When we came back in front of the theater at 6:40, there was a Bengali couple standing there. "Oh, so there are going to be other people," we thought. We went inside and down the escalator, past the popcorn stalls and the gatekeeper into theater #1 with the face of Apu peering at us from a large poster, and when we entered the theater, we gasped.

There were 140 seats in the theater, and about 60 people were already sitting. In fact, if we had been a little late, we would not have got good seats at all. People kept streaming in until the movie started and there must have been close to a 100 people who saw the movie with us. Most of them were non-Indians. It was a proud moment to see so many people enchanted by the magic of Ray on screen, unhindered by the limitation of a foreign language and the backdrop of a time and place they could barely understand. But then, humans are the same everywhere, and watching Pather Panchali this time, I realized how much of the movie works without the dialog, just by using human expressions, silences, body language, actions and wordless lip-movements. A hundred people laughed on cue at the funny sequences, and sniffs could be heard all around me when Durga died.

Now, the film quality. In one word, I will describe it as amazing. I had no idea that Pather Panchali could look so good on the big screen. Not a scratch can be found on the frames, and the contrast and lighting of each black and white shot is perfect. The sound is crystal clear. In fact, I suspect Pather Panchali has never looked and sounded this good, even when it was released in 1955.

We liked the experience so much that we wanted to come back for more. However, we had other commitments over the weekend and could not find time for two more movies and had to settle for watching only Apur Sansar in the theater on Sunday evening. To complete the trilogy, we watched Aparajito at home on Saturday night.

The Sunday evening show was about half full, and again, most of the people were non-Indians. Many of them, as I found out from their conversation, had seen the 4:15 p.m. show of Aparajito. The old lady sitting next to me said she had watched the movies in the 1960s in South America and she wanted to see them again. She also informed me that Saturday was nearly houseful for the movies. I saw her wipe a tear when Aparna died on screen. People all around me reacted so well at the events on screen that at one point I began to suspect that they understood Bengali. However, in one scene, the subtitle was a little late and the late laughter there revealed that people were indeed reacting to the subtitles. This fact alone may not seem remarkable at all - of course people were reacting to the subtitles, what else are they supposed to do at a foreign movie? But when I thought of the things they had to understand to fully grasp the story - the way arranged marriages worked in rural Bengal, the way education and employment worked in Calcutta, the household chores that a newlywed woman would have to do - and a dozen other small things, I felt immensely respectful, both towards the patience of the audience and the skill of the master storyteller who could still draw crowds with a 60-year old movie and absolutely no publicity of any kind.

Thanks to Janus Films and the Criterion Collection for giving us an opportunity to see these masterpieces on the big screen, a chance that I had never imagined I would get. I would love to see more Satyajit Ray films on the big screen. I hope the response to the Apu Trilogy proves sufficiently warm for them to try and restore some of the other classics as well.