Restored ‘Apu Trilogy’ Coming to Theaters in May, Criterion Release Likely to Follow


The Apu Trilogy restoration
Photo: Janus Films

One of the most talked about, yet infrequently seen film trilogies of all time has to be Satyajit Ray‘s The Apu TrilogyPather Panchali (Song Of The Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (The World Of Apu). You can find poor quality versions on YouTube and purchase shoddy DVD copies on Amazon and eBay, but soon these classics will be available in newly minted restored versions as Janus Film announced today the upcoming $K restoration of all three films will be begin a national re-release in New York City at Film Forum on Friday, May 8 and in Los Angeles at Landmark’s Nuart Theater on Friday, May 29, followed by releases in art houses nationwide throughout the summer.

Frequently listed as one of the top accomplishments in the history of cinema, the trilogy helped bring India into the golden age of international art-house cinema – but this restoration was long thought to be impossible, after a fire severely damaged the original negatives in 1993. Whatever was left of the original negatives was salvaged by the Academy Film Archive and it wasn’t until the technology improved that this restoration was possible.

Based on two books by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, The Apu Trilogy follows one indelible character, a free-spirited child in rural Bengal who matures into an adolescent urban student and finally a sensitive man of the world. The films, shot over the course of five years (and featuring different actors playing the maturing Apu), are among the most visually radiant, richly humane movies ever made – essential works for any film lover. Martin Scorsese called watching the films “One of the great cinematic experiences of my life.” Akira Kurosawa said, “Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or moon.”

In 1993, a year after Ray won the Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a project was initiated to restore Ray’s films, including THE APU TRILOGY. En route to Los Angeles, many of the negatives were temporarily stored at London’s Hendersons Film Laboratories. There, a massive nitrate fire at the lab spread to the film vaults, and the original negatives were feared lost forever.

The restoration was accomplished by the Criterion Collection in association with the Academy Film Archive at The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences teamed up with L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, one of the world’s premiere restoration facilities.

How did they do it? Well, close to a thousand hours of meticulous hand labor were spent to rehydrate the brittle film, rebuild sprocket perforations on the sides of the film and remove melted tape, glue and wax. Using fine-grain masters and duplicate negatives preserved by Janus Films, the Academy, and the British Film Institute, suitable replacements were found for the non-usable or missing sections of the original negatives.

In the end, forty percent of Pather Panchali, and more than sixty percent of Aparajito were restored directly from the original negative. Apur Sansar‘s restoration is comprised of a fine grain and a safety dupe negative, as the original negative was too damaged by the fire to be usable. Over the course of six months of steady work, the Criterion Collection restoration lab handled the digital restoration. Emphasis was placed on retaining the look and character of the original material, when necessary preferring to leave damage rather than over-process digital images that might lose the grain and feel of the film.

Personally, I have ugly copies of the Apu Trilogy that I have yet to watch and now it would seem silly to even try. I expect the trilogy will arrive here in Seattle this summer and most likely come to the Criterion Collection at the end of 2015, likely serving as their big end of the year box set, a spot reserved for Zatoichi two year ago and Jacques Tati last year. I can’t wait to finally see what Roger Ebert was talking about in his Great Movies essay fourteen years ago when he wrote:

I watched “The Apu Trilogy” recently over a period of three nights, and found my thoughts returning to it during the days. It is about a time, place and culture far removed from our own, and yet it connects directly and deeply with our human feelings. It is like a prayer, affirming that this is what the cinema can be, no matter how far in our cynicism we may stray.