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Saturday, July 04, 2020

Iconic Satyajit Ray film Pather Panchali gets a controversial touch of colour

Aniket Bera, an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland, has given a touch of colour to a clip from Satyajit Ray's first film Pather Panchali (1955).

Written by Debasmita Das | Kolkata | Updated: June 8, 2020 2:24:43 pm
Pather Panchali colour Aniket Bera’s colour version of Pather Panchali has evoked mixed responses. (Photo: Aniket Bera/YouTube/Screengrab)

Satyajit Ray’s first film Pather Panchali (1955) has got a touch of colour for the very first time. Aniket Bera, an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland, and a diehard fan of the Oscar-winning filmmaker, has restored part of the black and white classic in colour, and released a experimental clip on social media. He says it is his way of paying tribute to Ray in the filmmaker’s birth centenary year.

The clip has evoked mixed responses. Among others, Satyajit Ray’s son Sandip is not happy with the experiment. Speaking to IE Bangla, he said “there is no need to tamper with a classic. There was no need to retouch it.”

On social media, Aniket Bera’s colour version of Pather Panchali has kicked up a predictable storm. Here’s what Bera told IE Bangla about his experiment:

Why Pather Panchali? There are so many other films.

Pather Panchali is one of my all-time favourite films, so it was the first one that came to mind when this technology was being developed. The entire process is more than just colorization. The video was digitally upscaled and restored, so the film looks sharper, cleaner, has better contrast ratios, and less noise. This process is also being used in some Hollywood movies because this technology is very recent. I wanted to bring this research to India with Pather Panchali.

Your recreation has evoked a mixed response.

I had no idea that this would become controversial. I only wanted it to be an academic experiment using AI. For me, I will always remember Pather Panchali in black and white, and that’s how it should be watched, for the magic of art and cinema. This small experimental video is only an attempt to see how far AI can go. Manual colorization in films like Mughal-e-Azam or Hollywood movies takes years to do and costs crores. With AI, you can not only improve video quality, but also optionally colour the video at virtually no cost and very little time (hours as opposed to years).

I wanted to see how it would have looked like if I was on the set of Pather Panchali in colour. I wanted to see if AI could predict what the colours would have been. It’s only when we try to push the technology we can see what is possible.

Wasn’t there copyright concerns?

Since this video was purely an academic experiment and has no commercial intention or value, there is no copyright issue. I have only used two minutes of the film.

Do you think colorization would work for Pather Panchali?

I think that depends on the original filmmaker and audience demand. Some movies can benefit from colorization because the younger generation might enjoy it more. It all depends on the film and the cinematographer. Many older Indian movies can benefit from AI restoration and quality improvement (not necessarily colorization). My video experiment has both, but we can choose only quality improvement and not introduce colour.

Pather Panchali stills Uma Dasgupta in a still from the original Pather Panchali. (Express archives photo) Pather Panchali satyajit ray Satyajit Ray and Karuna Banerjee on the set of Pather Panchali. (Express archive photo)

Are people aware of this AI technique?

A lot of people have heard about Artificial Intelligence, but very few know how it works. AI has the capability to change the world, change the way we do things. Already many big companies in the US are using AI in their work. Almost all Silicon Valley companies have a dedicated AI group. Even in Hollywood, AI is playing a very important role in visual effects, camera effects, rendering, and even music composition.

In this AI experiment, the AI ‘dreams’ of parts of the movie (pixels) which never existed in the first place. The AI technology works like the human brain. It looks at millions of real videos (from different real-world datasets) and automatically learns to think as our brain understands the world around us. AI can imagine what it would look like, even with very low or poor quality videos.

Similarly, even though the AI does not know what the original colour was or what the original photos looked like, it can ‘dream’ of these things. A simple example would be, say the AI looks at an image of a black and white cricket ball from an old movie which is blurry and noisy. Since it knows it is a cricket ball, it knows that its colour is red (or its variations). It knows what the ball looks like and can remove noise and/or pixels even when blurry. It can be used to make images look clearer and sharper.

Incidentally, this AI technology is based on something called Neural Networks, because that is how the human brain works. Even though this technology is very new, things are changing very fast, with new research coming out every day. Of course, it is not perfect. In fact, AI is just at the beginning of this research. Hopefully, in three-four years, things will become more dramatically realistic as the AI gets smarter and learns new things.

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