Nearly a month back, a videowas uploaded to youTube with the title “Pather Panchali in Color”. It was uploaded by Professor Aniket Bera, a professor of Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the University of Maryland. However, it was clearly mentioned in the description that this is a small AI experiment for upgrading the black and white footage to 60 fps, 4Kand it was digitally colourized using neural network design (DAIN, ESRGAN, DeOldify).
Obviously, it was not really well received by the netizens and especially it generated much hatred among Bengalis. Due to the hateful comments Professor Bera had to pin a comment in the video saying that he understands that this has been a crude experiment and he only did this because of his love for Ray’s films. He has also mentioned in the comment that this is not the best way to experience the movie and this was just a small experiment. It is also said in the description that best cinematic version is the 2015 Criterion Restoration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscars).
If we dig a bit deeper to understand the hatred, we will see that there are mainly 3 aspects of the reactions. The first one is Technical. Many people have shown the appreciation for the effort that Professor Bera has put to transform this small, just over 2 minutes footage. I am not an expert of Artificial intelligence but as said by couple of my friends who are studying and researching in the field of AI and neural network, it is an extremely growing field and one really need to put a lot of effort to come up with a fine product like this. This is an experiment and experiments are for finding a better way to improve something, to innovate something. This huge endeavour deserves more appreciation as per as technical excellence is concerned and it would be very interesting to see how this experiment can make a betterment in the coming days in the digital colorization of older movies.
The primary reason for the polarised reactions is the second aspect – Emotional. You have to keep in mind we, Indians are very emotional and especially for Bengalis ‘Pather panchali’ is an emotion that is very hard to explain. Not only the movie, but all the stalwarts associated with the movie – Satyajit Ray, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pandit Ravi Shankar– everyone we are proud of and they are very precious to us. Apu and Durga are our household names, Indir Thakrun is every Bengali’s old grandma, Sarbajaya is that motherly figure that comes to our mind with the word “Maa” (Mother).The emotion here is very raw and any kind of alteration to that emotion is difficult to digest. So it is understandable why the hatred is there but that is not justified. This reaction is the very reason why we cannot have a modern day adaptationof Byomkeshlike we have of Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s Sherlockor CBS’s Elementary.
The last and most interesting aspect of the reaction is Psychological. Colours have a psychological effect in our mind and unknowingly colour plays a pivotal role in our movie watching experience. We do not exactly know but directors manipulate our emotions by using (or not using) a colour. The colour psychology in cinematic visuals is a very interesting topic and there are a lot of examples of this. A straightforward example can be the Matrix which uses a single tone almost throughout the film and that is Green. The green tint is very much associated with computer programming screens shown in the movies. Another example can be Her, where the protagonist is always surrounded by different shades of Red as that drives us towards his search for love.
But using a colour for a visual is not as easy as we think. Even before colour was introduced in movies, filmmakers used to hand paint to show the difference between cinematic world and realistic world. Slowly it started to occur to the filmmakers that colour can be an interesting tool to indicate various character traits and as well as to manipulate human emotions. With the introduction of Technicolor, the door got wide open and the evolution of coloured talkies begun. Some interesting colour introduction of early days movies are Vertigoby Alfred Hitchcockand later Cries and whispersby Ingmar Bergman. In vertigo Scottie (James Stewart) is always associated with Red (for vigilance) whereas Madeleine is always in Green (For Envy). In Cries and whispers the whole room is Crimson Red. According to Bergman, he imagines the colour of soul is red and it was used in production design in that way to extract the emotion.
So adding a colour can be conceptualized at any stage of filmmaking. It can be a decision made at the time of writing the story or Screenplay to enhance the movie viewing experience (The Fallby Tarsem Singh). It can be a conscious decision in production design as it was done in Cries and Whispers. It can be the character arc shown in their costume design (Breaking Bad); it can be in the cinematography and in lighting (Colours Trilogy by Krzysztof Kieslowski) or in post production (brilliantly introduced in Coen brothers’ O Brother, where Art Thou?). The background colour also sometimes tells you to judge the character in a different way like you do not take anything seriously when someone does even terrible things with a pretty pink background in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
It is possible to write a lot of articles about the use and significance of colours in visual storytelling but getting back to our primary point, we can see that the colourization of Pather Panchali is not at all a creative decision. If Mr. Ray would have done it, he might do it in a much different way. The whole writing, production design, costumes are done keeping in mind that it is going to be a Black and white film. This is also evident of the fact that colorization and restoration of old films cannot be easily done by only colouring it, there is much more impact of colours in a visual than we can think of. In recent times Mughal-e-Azamand Naya Daurare two examples of colorized big screen release in India and they both kind of worked because both of them are epic-larger-than-life drama. Pather Panchali is much layered, much lyrical and closer to reality and that is why it deserves the utilization of more creative minds, not only the technical intelligence. Maybe our Song of the little roadis better without colours and more vividly filled with raw emotion.