In 1992, when renowned Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray was presented a lifetime achievement Oscar on his deathbed, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences couldn't find enough prints to assemble a tribute reel. "Literally," says Academy Film Archive director Mike Pogorzelski, "the only prints that were in the U.S. were so battered and worn, they weren't good enough for the telecast." Since then, the archive has been restoring roughly a Ray feature per year, and all 18 features and one short restored to date will screen Sept. 6 to Oct. 21 at the Aero Theatre and at the Academy.
Born in 1921, Ray was one of the cinema's great midcentury humanists, portraying rarely seen particulars about Bengali life in and around Calcutta in universal terms — themes of tradition versus modernity, the livelihood of individuals and families, women's social roles, the cycles of life and death.
Ray's Apu Trilogy, beginning with his first feature, Pather Panchali (1955), is a beautiful, neorealist portrait of rural life, which captures images with an unforced lyricism that feels accidental: an eye peeking through a blanket, children playing and, most famously, a distant train snaking along the horizon beyond swaying pampas grass. The narrative of the child protagonist Apu continues through the more refined and mystical Aparajito (1957) and the poignant The World of Apu (1959).
Why was such work — considered a national treasure in India — in such dire condition? "Eastman Kodak's first reports of acetate deterioration came from India," Pogorzelski says. "The warm and moist climate was just wrong for film, and many of Ray's negatives were deteriorated past the point of being usable."
Tragically, the preservation took an early turn for the worse when a fire destroyed a London lab that was storing some of Ray's negatives. "That changed the project completely," Pogorzelski says. "It turned into having to find the best surviving film elements from around the world, and piecing them together."
The Apu Trilogy may be Ray's best-known work, but his films span a diverse career. Highlights include the existential, contemplative The Music Room (1958), about an aristocrat's last soiree in his dilapidated mansion; The Big City (1963), which beautifully charts a housewife's social tensions as she becomes a working professional; and The Goddess (1960), an expressionist drama about a young girl (played by the great Sharmila Tagore, who became a Ray regular) believed to be Kali incarnate. Initially banned for foreign distribution, The Goddess' implicit criticism of religious fundamentalism is as powerful as anything by Carl Theodor Dreyer.
Ray was a Renaissance man who not only wrote and directed his films but also created many of his scores. He worked as a graphic artist and wrote essays, short stories and novels. His penchant for satire is evident in his incisive Calcutta Trilogy, which depicts idealistic young people corrupted by society. Company Limited (1972) makes use of industrial footage (including a startling color sequence mimicking a TV commercial) to emphasize the increasingly amoral path of an ambitious sales manager. The Middleman (1976) is an exposé on the dwindling career options of Calcutta's college graduates, which dramatizes the dehumanizing work of profiteering "middlemen" between suppliers and buyers.
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Ray also expressed a love for established genres. The atmospheric short film Monihara (part of his excellent 1961 anthology Three Daughters) is a ghost story with thrilling set design full of menacing shadows, dark sculptures and mirrors. The Expedition (1962) is a neorealist noir about a cynical taxi driver who faces a moral crisis in a border town. Musical fantasy The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha (1969) — one of Ray's most popular movies in India — uses simple visual effects and jump cuts to fashion a whimsical comedy for children. The Elephant God (1979) is a charming mystery and one of Ray's first color films, beautifully shot by his longtime cinematographer, Soumendu Roy, in and around a Varanasi palace on the bank of the Ganges.
Recently, the Criterion Collection home video label, working with the Academy Film Archive, has begun to release digital restorations of Ray's films on Blu-ray. "The Ray project will be a really interesting time capsule of how film preservation is evolving," Pogorzelski notes, describing how the Academy's photochemical processes predate digital methods. "There are pictures of Ray in the lab," Pogorzelski says, "where you can see a printer in the background, and the operator has a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He's blowing smoke into the optics all day long. So we probably could digitally take all of that out, but I don't know that we should.
"Do you want it to have a digital artifact that doesn't look like anything that appeared in the film? Or can you live a little bit with the analog artifacts, which have been there from day one? It's an interesting trade-off, and decisions will have to be made."