After the Artificial Intelligence generated coloured clip of ‘Pather Panchali’ created outrage among Ray fans, a couple of manually coloured clips of two classics have also surfaced online. While one is again a clip from a Ray film, the other is a song sequence from a Guru Dutt movie. Both were done independently in Mumbai as alternative experiments.
The brain behind this effort is a former editing student of Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India who now works as a filmmaker in Mumbai. As part of his quarantine experiment, the director of “Half Songs” came up with a part black-and-white and part sepia-toned clip of ‘Apur Sansar’ starring Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore. Taking his experiment a step further, he attempted conceptual colouring of the ‘Jaane kya tune kahi’ song where Guru Dutt follows Waheeda Rahman draped in a mauve sari.
Sharmila Tagore in a screengrab from Raja’s quarantine experiment with “Apur Sansar”
Thirty two-year-old Sriram Raja has called his experiments #imaginecolour. “The idea is to ‘imagine’ certain moments from the classics in colour. It is not to make a sample clip and pitch for colourising the whole film. It is neither to excite people about how it would be to see the whole film in colour,” Raja said, before comparing his work with that of amateur independent musicians making ‘cover’ versions of popular music pieces or songs.
Raja is fundamentally opposed to “deoldify” – a commonly-used term meaning efforts to remove the ‘oldness’ from things. “Imagining colour on black and white shot doesn’t mean making it ‘better’ or ‘new’ or ‘suitable for today’s times’. When you approach an experiment with this intent, there is an element of disrespect towards the original material. There were attempts in the past to colourise black and white films but most of them were efforts made to re-release the film hoping colour will connect with the present audience. The films shot in black and white were planned, lit up and exposed to suit the black and white stock. Colourising them takes away the attention from the subject that the cinematographer had achieved in the original.”
To explain his view, he refers to the VK Murthy’s cinematography in the ‘Pyaasa’ clip. “He has done the lighting and framing in a way that the attention is on Waheeda Rehman. If I colour all elements in the frame equally, the attention is divided and the shot won’t give you the same effect as the original. So, I decided to keep the colour only on the characters,” he explained.
Snubbing all attempts to be branded a purist, Raja insisted that he stays away from that approach when it “comes to the craft of cinema”. “Disruptors have always brought constructive change in cinema. Purists of the silent era were disappointed with the advent of sound. Purists of celluloid era were disappointed with the digital movement. People welcome change if it is aesthetically pleasing. I do not support the process of colourising classics because I believe we have not yet understood what the process should be like,” he explained.
Raja chose to use colour in a dream-like way and not realistically for Waheeda Rahman’s sari
When he started work, Raja decided that viewers must see the colour appearing and disappearing on the black and white clip. He also wanted to end the shots in black and white as a “mark of respect” to the original classics. “I was curious to see if I can use the appearing and disappearing of colour as a part of the narrative,” he said. Initially with “Apur Sansar”, he tried to experiment with a scene where Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) blows out a burning matchstick. “I found a point there to take the colour out. Similarly, the scene in ‘Pyaasa’, Gulaabo (Waheeda) lures Vijay (Guru Dutt) into her world and they both cross a tunnel. It is a symbolic moment in the film. The portion was perfect for me to go from black and white to colour. As she enters a gate, I found a point to take out the colour. I wanted to use colours in a dream-like way and not realistically. When the experiment is to give a dream-like experience, there is a suspension of disbelief,” he explained.
On being asked why he chose to use mauve as a colour for Waheeda’s sari while not using any for Sharmila’s, he said, “One need not try to be precise about the colour of saree Waheeda Rehman was wearing on the day of the shoot. If I take the liberty that it is a dream, I choose the colour. I can make her wear my favourite colour.” As for “Apur Sansar”, using any other attractive colour would have taken the attention away from Soumitra’s question asking Sharmila what’s there in her eyes. “I was careful not to change the basic ‘intent’ of the filmmaker. Her face, especially the eyes, is the focus and not the sari,” he said.
In Raja’s views, the AI method of colouring clips is the “quickest and easiest”. “The manual method is time consuming and demands a certain expertise. Softwares were used in the ‘Pyaasa’ clip where each frame was coloured and tracked,” he said. Each shot would have many layers like skin, lips, eyes, hair, saree, ornaments and handbag etc. Each of them had to be tracked individually and coloured. It takes about a week to do and render a one-minute clip. “AI behaves exactly like a robot. It performs the task the way it is programmed. There is no human brain behind it. So, it doesn’t care about the aesthetic quality. It is the people who bring in aesthetics. I believe AI is not advanced yet to give precise colour reproduction,” he said.
Raja has reservations about the efforts to use AI to colour “Pather Panchali” though he doesn’t support the claims made by some “purists”. “Some of them claim that black and white is a choice of the filmmaker and colourising it, is like a crime. Well, maybe not. The year was 1955 and there was no choice of a colour stock at that time. Filmmakers had a desire to use colours even before that. In early cinema era, there were films like ‘Les Six Soeurs Dainef’ (1902) that had colours hand painted on the black and white shot in an attempt to colourise it,” Raja reminded.
The filmmaker doesn’t endorse the criticism among purists who say “one shouldn’t digitally manipulate the classics”. Raising questions on what constitutes digital manipulation, he said, “The ‘Pather Panchali’ that we now have in our hands was scanned by an American company, ‘The Criterion Collections’ using the negative from London archives. The restoration of the image and sound was done at L’Immagine Ritrovata by Italian technicians. It was recovered, repaired from the burnt remains, restored and scanned in 4K. The 1993 fire at the archive had destroyed the negative. The sky was burnt. There were crack lines over most of the portrait shots. How do we see them clean now? The sky is patched digitally. The crack lines were digitally redrawn. The film we enjoy now is a product of this digital manipulation. We should therefore be fair while writing such opinions.”
Softwares were used in the ‘Pyaasa’ clip where each frame was coloured and tracked
As far as others’ opinions about his work, Raja’s efforts have been lauded by Aniket Bera – the assistant research professor of the University of Maryland who had used AI to colour some scenes from “Pather Panchali”. “I think this is a great colorization. It’s nice and also experimental. A lot of the background isn’t in color,” Bera said, adding, “It all depends on what people want from the artistic side. Manual colorization involves a lot of labour and is talent-driven. The end result strongly depends on the artist and even the initial quality. AI colorization is still in its infancy. AI is great for upgrading quality and restoration but colorization is still not the best. I think currently, AI methods are superfast and very cheap but can’t compete with manual coloring. In the future, I think a combination of AI tools and manual color artists will be the best solution in terms of quality and costs.”
Source: Times of India