City landmarks are woven into the narrative of Pratidwandi (The Adversary), the first of Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta trilogy films (based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel). The call of an unknown bird he had first heard as a child haunts Siddhartha; it leads him to the bird sellers in New Market, where he is lost in the cacophony. Similarly, the Tata Centre figures prominently, glimpsed from a bus like a glittering citadel in a modern city. The tallest building in Calcutta at the time, it looks aspirational, and seems ironic, considering Siddhartha is jobless. However, he manages to take his girlfriend Keya to its rooftop one day, thanks to a friend who works there, and here we get the film’s most breathtaking scene: an aerial view of the city, its sheer vitality. There’s the colonial past on the one hand, and political realities on the other – Victoria Memorial is juxtaposed with a Brigade gathering, slogans blaring out from a megaphone – all while the two young lovers talk about the future.
I revisited the film last week on the eve of my meeting with cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee, who has supervised the restoration of a bunch of Ray films for the National Film Development Corporation of India and the National Film Archive of India. Chatterjee was a youngster when he saw some of those films in theatres – they fired his imagination. Today, he is one of the biggest cinematographers in the country (Chak De! India, Bajirao Mastani, Gangubai Kathiawadi, among others).
When Prakash Makdum, the then director of NFAI, approached Chatterjee in February, he wasn’t sure if he would be able to make time for it. Chatterjee told him that he will make time. “It’s a kind of payback for me,” he said, when I met him at his place on a hot Saturday afternoon.
Chatterjee was lounging in his tastefully done living room, listening to African jazz on a record player. His apartment is on the 57th floor, and the view from his balcony makes perfect sense for someone who’s in the business of seeing. It overlooks the vast expanses of greens of Aarey Milk Colony. Cars look like toys and birds are on your eye level. The skyline stretches as far as Chembur, and on a good day, he tells me, you can even see the hills of Matheran. The National award winning cinematographer pointed Eastward at a white domelike structure and identified it as Film City, his second home. He drew my attention to a dot my eyes couldn’t catch. “That’s the set of Heera Mandi,” he said (referring to the Netflix series by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and his fifth with the director).
It was akin to how he would point out details later that evening as we watched the Tata Centre scene from Pratidwandi on my laptop, details that wouldn’t be visible without restoration. “This is Mayo road. And that’s the Indian Museum. But the pond across the street doesn’t exist anymore.”
Chatterjee completed 20 years as a cinematographer this year – his first was the Ram Gopal Varma produced Road – and he likes to think of his job as, simply put, documenting times. He marvels at the technique in the Tata Centre sequence (“It’s a one-take”), but to him it’s a visual record of Calcutta in 1970 more than anything else (“This is how the houses looked, that’s how the cars were”). Next week, when the audience watches Pratidwandi at the Cannes film festival, where it’s being screened as part of Cannes Classics, they will see those details in all their glory.
Contradiction and conflict is at the heart of Pratidwandi. Calcutta has no jobs for Siddhartha, yet he can’t bear the thought of leaving this rotten and squalid city. He defends his ambitious younger sister in front of elders, but slut-shames her in private. Siddhartha may compete with others like him during job interviews, but his real battles are within. The anti-authoritarian angst is an outlet for his frustration. Pratidwandi was a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the socio-political unrest of that time – it’s as much a character study of a certain kind of 70s hero, a big city creature in a love-hate relationship with his environment. It’s an unusual Ray, seething with anger until it explodes in the climax.
He brings out all this in the way he lights the movie, holds the camera, and makes the sweltering summer palpable on screen. Chatterjee points out the use of contrasts – play of shadow and light, all the more striking because of the black and white – that seem to depict Siddhartha’s state of being. Dhritiman Chatterjee’s face is used to marvellous effect. “The way he (Ray) is talking through the image, this restoration was necessary to get the nuances in the cinematography,” he says.
Even though much has been said about how challenging, painstaking, and complicated the process of restoration is, it’s not nearly enough, especially in a country like India, where awareness about film preservation has come so late that we’ve lost most of our our silent films. Add to that, the humidity, which makes it one of the least conducive. The world of film preservation is a whole other world, filled with technical terms you may have never heard of: mother negative (the original camera roll, which contains the film in the best possible form, and is your best shot if you want the best restoration results); master positive (a copy of the mother negative, contains less information, and is your second best shot); and so on.
Chatterjee mentioned something called the wet-gate scanning machine. Film roll tends to stick on itself as a consequence of lying for decades and this helps unspool it by dipping it in a chemical, with minimum damage. “The Scorsese Foundation and Cineteca de Bologna have it,” he says. “But it takes years to restore one film and requires real expertise.”
The Ray restorations were commissioned in relatively short notice. Makdum flew down to Kolkata in October last year to convince Purnima Dutta (of Purnima Pictures, producer of Pratidwandi) to trust him with the original 35 mm camera negative – a proposal she is believed to have refused back when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences approached her when they began the first Ray restorations, shortly after conferring him with an Oscar in 1992. (Among the new NFAI restorations, Hirak Rajar Deshe had to be restored from the master positive, and Sadgati was found in a digital tape, on account of which plans of restoring it were shelved).
Only about 70 percent of Pratidwandi could be recovered. “While majority of the restored film looks fantastic, there are some parts that aren’t that great,” Chatterjee says. He was referring to scenes like the one where Siddhartha and his friend Adinath walk the streets at night. In the version available to us, you can vaguely make out the bustling Chowringhee area, with its bright lights and shops. It’s only so much better in the restored one. “It could’ve been brighter. There could have been more shadow details. But while trying to brighten it we realised that it was generating grains and digital noise,” he says.
One of the tricky aspects of a restorer’s job is to know where to draw the line. Restoration rules prohibit meddling with the original, which means a dirt caused by a gate or a scratch in the negative is often retained. “You have to constantly go back and see how much difference there is with the original print, if you lost some natural grain,” Chatterjee says. He was in touch with Ray’s son, Sandip, who he would email frame grabs time to time. “He was particularly happy with Shatranj Ke Khiladi. He said the saturations were just right.”
An alumni of the Film and Television Institute of India, Chatterjee was roped in for the Ray restorations, he presumes, because he is someone who understands both film and digital (The upcoming superhero film Brahmastra is going to be his most special effects heavy). When Makdum reached out, he quickly marshalled his team: Prime Focus Technologies in Mumbai, his preferred DI studio, and the colourist Aashirwad Hadkar. (The audio restoration was done by a team at the NFAI and subtitles by Moinak Biswas, a professor of film studies at Jadavpur University).
The other reason was that he is a Bengali, with deep connections to Ray. The Ray restorations commissioned by the NFDC and NFAI are a part of a larger, government funded, multi-crore project, but Chatterjee’s passion for it is rooted in a personal quest: to make the films available to his children – and by extension, the next generation of cinema lovers.
“They are used to seeing such good quality images today, that if you show them bad quality image they won’t watch it,” he says. He recalls trying to show his son Pather Panchali for the first time and he just wouldn’t watch it. But he saw the difference when he played the Criterion print. “He couldn’t get up, purely because of the image.”