Rising from the Ashes

Fifty years after its India screening,Satyajit Ray’s recently restored version of Mahanagar will hit UK theatres this month

Written by Debesh Banerjee | Published:August 12, 2013 5:03 am

The ’50s remains a trying period in India’s history. The country was coming to grips with its newfound independence as it reeled from social and financial crisis. In that setting,Satyajit Ray captured the angst and triumphs of a woman in Calcutta trying to assert her rights for financial independence in his 1963 movie,Mahanagar (The Big City). Late film critic Roger Ebert remarked,“The Big City is one of the most rewarding screen experiences of our time. I encourage you all to see it.” Fifty years after it was screened in India,a fully restored version of the film is now ready for release across theatres in England.

The film,which received the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 14th Berlin International Film Festival in 1964,will have 37 screenings from August 16 onwards. “We had shortlisted Charulata and The Big City for extended screenings. The Big City is relevant even today. Ray dealt with the theme wittily and powerfully. It is also a chance to discover some of Ray’s lesser-known films,” says Geoff Andrew,Head Film Programmer at the British Film Institute (BFI),which is organising the screenings across the UK. These are part of a two-month Ray retrospective,which includes 35 other classics.

The original print for Mahanagar was restored in India over a period of six to seven months through last year,using 2K resolution,(the most advanced restoration process) at Pixion Studios,Mumbai. “We examined the original print of Mahanagar in our archives and realised that it was decaying and moulding. The only way to preserve the print was to restore them using this process. It also helps us in sending the film to the ‘Classics’ section of international film festivals,” says Varsha Bansal,director,RDB Entertainment,which commissioned the restoration. Along with this film,five other Ray classics — Charulata,Nayak,Kapurush,Mahapurush and Jai Baba Felunath — are simultaneously being restored by RDB Entertainment,whose parent company RDB and Co are the producers of the films. The other five will be screened by the BFI at the retrospective.

Though most of Ray’s films were restored in the late ’90s by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,under the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project (including The Big City),the films exist in 35 mm prints only. “The Academy restored Ray’s films in an analog fashion,which with constant use,wears out the prints. We have digitally scanned the negatives of each film and restored them using the latest technology,” says Bansal,who will send the restored versions of Kapurush and Mahapurush to the Venice International Film Festival later this year.

While most of Ray’s films (including Mahangar) are available on DVD,there haven’t been any screenings of the restored prints in India. “We approached cinema chains to screen the films,but never received a favourable response. It is not financially viable for them. The only theatre that may have agreed to screen the film in Kolkata was Nandan,but it does not have the infrastructure for digital prints. Therefore,we approached the BFI,” says Bansal.

The BFI is thrilled about the retrospective. “The last time we had a screening of Ray’s films was a decade ago,” says Andrew. On August 15,besides Pather Panchali and Aparajito,there will be an illustrated talk on Ray’s works by Dr Manishita Dass from the Royal Holloway University,including a poster exhibition of Ray’s sketches over the years. The retrospective concludes on October 5.

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