One refrain often heard in discussions of twenty-first-century film culture is a lament for the loss of social film viewing. While we celebrate the fact that digital technologies have given us convenient access to unprecedented numbers of movies, old and new, we often presume that this luxury comes at a price: the widespread decline—except in perhaps a few large cities—of the theatrical experience.
But anyone seriously interested in film culture today will find that this sweeping generalization doesn’t really match up to the reality on the ground. In fact, we are witnessing a burgeoning interest in public cinema. Small signs of this resurgence can be seen across the country: for instance, recently in Buffalo, New York (where I live), a successful event series marked a convergence of three restorations—or, if you will, three “returnings to life” . . .
From June through October of 2015, Buffalo’s North Park Theatre screened the newly restored versions of Satyajit Ray’s landmark The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959). The series was presented by Cultivate Cinema Circle, a new and ambitious film-screening organization that is aiming to revitalize film culture in the city.
The historic and majestic North Park opened its doors in 1920, during the silent film era. Its founding, almost a century ago, was heralded as an architectural event; the theater boasted a neoclassical foyer and auditorium with six art nouveau murals by the famed painter Raphael Beck. Five of these murals were designed for and layered into the ceiling’s ornate dome, while the sixth crested the proscenium. An elegant Art Deco marquee was added a couple of decades later.
In recent years, however, the theater, a victim to indifference and short-sightedness, fell steadily into neglect and disrepair. The elaborate ceiling in the lobby was lowered to save on heating bills. The striking stained-glass window above the marquee was boarded up. But last year, following a painstaking year of work, the theater reopened under new owners, restored to its former architectural glory. Crowds are now flocking to the theater in numbers that had not been seen in decades.
Cultivate Cinema Circle (CCC), the organizer of The Apu Trilogy screenings, is an energetic local initiative committed to the idea of dispersed public cinema showings—held at a variety of sites and in diverse contexts around Buffalo. Founded and run by two young critics—Jordan Smith and Jared Mobarak, who write for a range of online cinema outlets—it is a refreshingly eclectic and omnivorous group. In addition to Satyajit Ray’s work, the circle’s programming over the past few months has included challenging Russian art cinema (Alexei Gherman’s 2013 film Hard to Be a God), experimental cinema (the films of Stephen Broomer), activist documentaries (Fredrik Gertten’s Bikes vs. Cars, released this year), classic French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 Le mépris), and a five-film series devoted to Agnès Varda, copresented with the Women and Gender Studies program at Canisius College. CCC has also forged relationships with a diverse range of organizations and had success in persuading several local small-business owners to sign on as cosponsors for screenings—an example that might be of broad use in cities across the country.
I was invited to introduce The Apu Trilogy screenings, and the experience brought back some deep-seated memories. I have always felt a profound connection with The Apu Trilogy, and especially with Pather Panchali: these are works that have accompanied my life. I first saw them as a teenager growing up in Kolkata, and I have met up with them time and again in various cities and countries over the years. These meetings have been under differing circumstances and in dramatically different settings: from a palatial auditorium (at my university in India) to a small, thrift-store TV set in my living room (when I was a recently arrived grad student in the U.S.). But the newly restored version shown in Buffalo brushed aside my familiarity and took me by surprise: the crystalline clarity of the images feels almost surreal. (The story behind the restoration is itself fascinating.)
I believe that, unconsciously or not, it is common cinephile practice, when revisiting a film, to search for something new—to be open to registering something unexpected that was always there but remained hidden from us. This time around with Pather Panchali, I noticed something so unmistakable that I was almost embarrassed I had never been struck by it before.
The film tells the story of a poor family in rural Bengal in the 1920s: the long-suffering mother who struggles to run the household; the financially oblivious father who is an itinerant and frequently absent priest; and their children, Durga and Apu. An elderly relative (Auntie Indir), who has no permanent home, occasionally stays with the family. What I realized on this most recent reviewing is that the first moment a character makes her or his appearance in Pather Panchali, we immediately glimpse something deep and essential about that character. In the film’s first shot we see the family’s wealthy neighbor praying on her roof—and then jerking her head around, her face curdling in suspicion that Durga is stealing a guava from her garden. (Mere seconds into the film, we learn so much about the hypocrisy and small-mindedness of the landowner class in Bengal.) We are then introduced to Durga, skipping away from the garden and crouching down to hide behind a plant: an ornate leaf creates a visual rhyme with the shape of her face. Her mischievous smile and her association with nature capture her earthy spirit; the fact that she indeed has a stolen guava in her hand signals that she is carefree and fearless.
In contrast, Apu’s first appearance (not counting the couple of shots of him as a newborn baby) marks him as less forceful than his older sister, and more passive. Seconds before we see him, we are shown the bustling household going about its morning activities. Apu, instead, is allowed to sleep in: he’s a bit of a spoiled boy. When Durga wakes him, Ray, in a slightly coy but cute touch, withholds our glimpse of his face—then suddenly shows it to us in full close-up, making sure none of us will miss his utter adorability. Soon, Durga is brushing his hair, getting him cleaned up and ready for the day. The fact that Apu is so doted upon also has a dark side: this is a family (and patriarchal culture) in which the male child is held to be special. (The film will go on to show us a pattern of differential treatment between Apu and Durga.)
The first time we see the family patriarch, Harihar, it is in a lightning-brief shot as he paces outside while his pregnant wife is in labor inside the house. The shot’s brevity and Harihar’s exclusion from the site of Apu’s birth are both indications of his powerlessness and the weakness of his contribution to sustaining the family. The fate of Apu’s mother is worst of all: great responsibility with little authority. When we first encounter her, she is drawing water from a well while being publicly humiliated by her affluent neighbor. She doesn’t fight back or protest, but instead quietly turns away. For the rest of the film, she struggles, heroically but with little appreciation or acknowledgment, to preserve her besieged family. Watching the film this time around, her plight felt more piercingly unjust to me than ever before. A fruitful possibility for analysis suggested itself for the next time I return to the trilogy: how do the lives of women—materially, and over time—play out differently from those of the men in this saga . . .
Girish Shambu teaches at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, and runs a community-oriented film blog at girishshambu.blogspot.com. He is the author of The New Cinephilia and is coeditor (with Adrian Martin) of the online cinema journal LOLA.