Article Bengali

Contemporary directors open to Pather Panchali coloration experiment but swear by Ray classic


Aniket Bera, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland in the US, has conducted an experiment of lending colour to some scenes from the 1955 film using artificial intelligence.

Roushni Sarkar

University of Maryland assistant professor Aniket Bera’s recent artificial intelligence (AI) experiment of lending colour to some of the scenes from Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) has received mixed response from Bengali cinephiles.

In a 2 minute 14 second video, Bera has carried out what he says is a purely academic experiment with the film closest to his heart, following the path of many professors and researchers experimenting with old footage from the West.

In an interview with The Times of India, an English daily, Bera said, “The AI technology works like the human brain. Though AI doesn’t know what the original colour was or what the original photos looked like, it can ‘dream’ of these things. It can be used to make images look clearer with a lot of details, sharper, and even in colour.”

Bera said that with the help of some doctorate students, he might engage in more such experiments in the future. He said the process is an automated one and takes six to seven hours.

While Ray’s filmmaker son Sandip did not welcome the experiment, other contemporary directors preferred to make objective assessments. Sandip Ray called the experiment “artificial” and said, “I can’t call the work very bad. Besides, technological advances are such that it is difficult to really make something that is too tacky. But one is so used to those eternal black-and-white frames that it is difficult to accept these. It seems out of tune.”

However, Ranjan Ghosh, director of Hrid Majharey (2014), Rong Beronger Korhi (2018) and Ahaa Re (2019), said, “A scientific experiment is always welcome in films, which itself is an amalgamation of art and science. However, every experiment has a quest in mind, a motivation, and that makes all the difference.”

Ghosh, who was a student of physics, added, “AI is an emerging technology in the field of cinema, and it is interesting to see the result. The actual colour of the costumes, the tonality, the indoor and outdoor light conditions the film was shot in, information such as these can enhance our knowledge about the aesthetics of the film. Then again, more accurate information could be given by the director, cinematographer, art director themselves. In their absence, if AI is being used by someone qualified, I wouldn't mind.”

Sandip Ray also felt that for the authenticity of the work, one should consult the original cinematographer to understand the tonal quality. “In the case of Pather Panchali, Subrata Mitra alone would know what the texture should be like in colour. But there is no way to crosscheck that now. Hence, a lot of liberty has been taken.”

Continuing with his train of thought, Ghosh, however, did not want to maintain an orthodox perspective “If the attempt is 'just to see' how the film would have [somewhat] 'looked' had it been shot in colour.” He welcomed the initiative because “even that is knowledge. The original film is not being destroyed, so what's the harm! Haven't we turned literature into cinema?”

Ranjan Ghosh, like two other contemporary directors, Srijit Mukherji and Atanu Ghosh, seemed to be making a clear distinction between technological advancement and personal preference. He clarified, “Needless to mention that I totally love Pather Panchali the way it is. But, having studied physics, I do not mind an experiment of this kind. After all, it's knowledge. Why stop it?

“That said, something inside me tells me that I would still prefer the classic the way it was envisaged and created by the masters. Film is, after all, emotions, memories and nostalgia!”

National award-winning filmmaker Mukherji had a clearer stand. “Obviously I prefer the black-and-white version," he said. "Having said that, I think it is an interesting experiment from an academic perspective, something which I have seen being tried on Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Pyaasa (1957) as well, with interesting results.”

Atanu Ghosh, maker of acclaimed films like Mayurakshi (2017) and Robibaar (2019), too, wasn't willing to discard the experiment at once. “I find it an interesting experiment only because it has been done on AI," he said. "Nothing beyond that. But it doesn't affect or influence my long-lasting impression about the film. I take it only as some sort of an attempt to visualze the images in colour. But whatever is done, it must thoroughly justify the aesthetics of the classic.”

Watch Aniket Bera's video here: