The Colour of Aesthetics

Written by Amitava Nag.  Read full article on Silhouette

In the works of Ray himself we will find that he made black-white after making films in colour as well, to him, it’s the subject which demands the medium and the treatment.

The fact : “Time for blood to flow”?

“The two bit cocksucker who colourized some films has sent a proposal to the West Bengal government about colourizing Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali.  I think someone should cut his dick out and shove it up his arse.  The time I think has come for blood to flow” – this is the message I got on my cell on 29th March 2008 from a painter friend residing in Mumbai.  Dumb-founded by the content of the message and the animated language coming from this docile friend of mine, I decided to call him up.  As expected, it was not his language, he just forwarded it,  his full support for the message apparent though – and he promised, he along with his film-maker friend whose message was forwarded and many such personalities will take to road if someone messes up with the masterpiece.

The reason for this rage is the fact that a Mumbai based firm, Sankranti Creations (which added colour to Mughal-e-Azam and Naya Daur) – has proposed to the West Bengal government that owns the Ray classic to colour the movie.

The colour of aesthetics

Before looking at what others say, lets first see what Ray had to say about the usage of colour in films.  In his seminal piece Rongeen Chhobi (meaning Colour cinema) written in 1972,  Ray observed – “When talking of Ashani Sanket,  many people asked me why I chose colour to make the film…..after all,  when I made Pather Panchali, based on a novel written by the same Bibhuti Bhusan who wrote Ashani Sanket and which was a story about poverty in a villageit had not been necessary to use colour;  then why use it to tell the story of a famine?” . Ray continued. “A question like this indicates the ideas and beliefs held by the general audience about the use of colour in cinema — that colour is inextricably linked with glamour and therefore the painful existence of people in the lower strata of society cannot be successfully portrayed through its use…..Even a few years ago it was the generally accepted view. Even those who were closely associated with cinema believed that a serious subject and colour did not go together”.  He reasoned that such a view is more predominant in India where commercial profitability shapes aesthetic taste more than anywhere else — “Nobody abroad holds such a view any longer; but in our country, people who have seen only Hindi films, or are not familiar with the restrained use of colour in serious foreign films, are very likely to harbour such an idea…….. The horrible effects that can be produced by an intemperate use of colour can be seen in any Hindi film made today.  Colour is used in Hindi films purely for glamour. Glossy and multi-hued packaging is necessary to hide the weaknesses in the basic subject-matter.”

The colour of aesthetics

However, Ray’s comments are about films which are made in colour or black-white in original and never about colouring of existing black-white films.  In the works of Ray himself we will find that he made black-white after making films in colour as well, to him, it’s the subject which demands the medium and the treatment.

What they say : “Cultural vandalism”

The news of the proposed plan of colouring Pather Panchali drew flak from the eminent persons in the field of art as already mentioned above.  Ray’s son Sandip, a film maker himself is vocal – “Atrocious, atrocious.  It was a bolt from the blue.  We didn’t know anything about this till we got the news from the papers.  Don’t tamper with classics, that’s all I can say. It is sheer blasphemy.”  Noted filmmaker, Buddhadeb Dasgupta said,  “Well the idea is nightmarish. I can’t even imagine someone is watching Pather Panchali in colour.” While Goutam Ghose was radical – “The proposal should immediately be rejected.  There is no need to make it in colour” , Ray’s contemporary Mrinal Sen was categorical – “This will destroy Pather Panchali. This technique might work for commercial Hindi films but definitely not for Pather Panchali. I’m strongly against this move.” And Sanjay Mukhopadhyay, director of the State-run Roop Kala Kendra perhaps summed up the agitation – “There should be a national protest against the proposal”

The colour of aesthetics

My take : The choice of the viewer

Back in the early nineties, a group of young men (including this atheist) were reviving the Presidency College Film Club when the obvious opening film choice was Pather Panchali.  And who else can introduce it apart from Subrata Mitra , or so we thought.  The seniors in college told us the caveat – Mitra, being extremely moody, will not agree, since in their previous experiences, he had lamented that the projected film in Derozio Hall was not the same Pather Panchali that he shot. “Your screen doesn’t give the same light-shade effect that I created, it’s a different film” – he had told them, we resorted to Battleship Potemkin, relieved that no Eisenstein or Vladimir Popov or Eduard Tisse will object to the Derozio Hall screen! Looking back, now, I try to fathom what Mitra wanted to say, do we realize, that it is basically a different film?

Every time I hear these directors speak, I am reminded of the path-breaking yet debatable concept of Roland Barthes – “the death of the Author” and finally “the birth of the Reader”. Whether you succumb to Barthes’ viewpoint or not, the passion of the directors not willing to lose their ‘originality’, is phenomenal.  And in many cases, the logic is, “if he wished then OK”, otherwise not.  What if, like in this case, Ray is not available for his views? I have asked many of my friends who were all shocked with the news of Sanskriti creations, which Ray film they would think can be made to colour? After a lot of persuasion , most of them told- Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen probably because its coloured sequel is a hit and everyone can probably visualize how GGBB will be in colour and also probably because the grandeur of an epic folklore can be in colour, they felt. We hear Ray’s voice here again in our acceptance of colour as a film medium, just faintly.  Truly, from a technical perspective, there are differences in approach between filming a colour and a black-white movie.  The depth-of-field point of view mise-n-scene took a back stage as pan-and-zoom of colour held reign, the light and shade of profile portraits more vivid in black-white. Directors of the range of Ray had changed their style depending on what at hand, hence the decision to plainly colour a black-white frame can be disastrous at times.