What the sub-prime crisis did to Satyajit Ray

Sunday, 28 March 2010 - 12:55am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

A Hollywood-inspired project to restore Ray’s films faces a funds drought, but it can be rescued with a little help from home

The financial crisis in the US, as is well known by now, felled many iconic Wall Street giants, with catastrophic consequences for the global economy. But far away from the public glare, the crisis, which continues to have a cascading effect on the US economy to this day, has also effectively pulled the plug on an ongoing Hollywood-inspired effort to preserve the cultural legacy of iconic Indian film director Satyajit Ray.

That project to restore the collected cinematic works of Indian filmdom’s Renaissance Man, which were at serious risk of being lost for posterity, was commissioned in the 1990s by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosts the annual Oscar ceremony. Over the years, it was funded by, among others, the Academy, the Ford Foundation and private donations from director Martin Scorsese and philanthropist David Woodley Packard, scion of the Hewlett-Packard family.

“But now money isn’t available in California because of the downturn,” says Dilip Basu, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was asked by the Academy to oversee the film restoration project, and heads the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at the university.  “California today is a failed state economically, and perhaps has more homeless people than Kolkata,” Basu told The Mag in Hong Kong recently.
Institutional funding for the project, which has so far successfully restored 21 of Ray’s 39 films (including short films), is drying up, given that the state of California, saddled with enormous budget deficits, is cutting back on public spending, and universities are abolishing inter-disciplinary programmes.

And one of the biggest private sponsors of the restoration programme — philanthropist David Packard — has also wound down his support, saying that it was now time for “rich Indians”, who were making a mark on the world stage, to contribute to the preservation of the legacy of a cinematic genius from their own country, Basu recalls.

Audrey Hepburn’s initiative
Packard’s withdrawal came soon after the announcement of a $825 million deal between Indian billionaire Anil Ambani and Hollywood director Steven Spielberg under which the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group would invest millions of dollars in Spielberg’s studio.

“I personally don’t think it’s right to confine Ray to an ‘Indian prism’ — he was, after all, one of the world’s greatest filmmakers,” says Basu, a close associate of the Ray family who was asked by the Academy in 1992 to take the Lifetime Achievement Oscar award to a critically ill Ray and tape his acceptance speech that was screened at the Oscar ceremony days later. 

“It’s an interesting paradox,” Basu points out, “that while Ray represents a substantive ‘cultural capital’ for India, it was in America that, after a lapse of 20 years of obscurity for Ray and his films, the restoration effort has been sustained. It was Hollywood that honoured Ray with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. And it is the Ray Center in California that has been showcasing his restored films in festivals around the world. Where is India in the picture?”

If anything, Basu’s experience over nearly two decades of battling bureaucratic babudom in West Bengal and the apathy of producers who have the original, decomposing negatives to Ray’s films reflect a callous insensitivity towards the preservation of Ray’s riches in the country that was his canvas.

It was Hollywood star Audrey Hepburn (who announced the honorary award to Ray on Oscar night in 1992) who initiated the project for the restoration of Ray’s works on behalf of the Academy and sought out Basu’s help. “She pointed out that although the Academy had honoured Ray, they hadn’t been able to locate any good films to show on Oscar night,” recalls Basu. She had, she said, spoken to the Academy and persuaded it to take up the project, but they didn’t know how to locate the original negatives back in India. She then persuaded Basu — who was from India, was passionate about Ray’s films, and knew his family — to coordinate the project.

An offer for Ambani
Basu, who travelled to India on a Fulbright professorship in 1993 to research the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946, instead found himself drawn deeper and deeper into “this labour of love, which has taken over my life.” Travelling with a pioneer in film restoration, he located 20 of Ray’s films but found to his dismay that most of them were in advanced stages of disintegration. The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation helped at the initial stage with additional funding, but Communist leaders in West Bengal were so ideologically rigid they resented the involvement of an NRI — horror, an American citizen! — in a project to restore the legacy of one of Bengal’s sterling sons.

Today, however, Basu, who has been invited by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) to put together a package of Ray films to be screened as part of the Festival of India in the US in 2011, is hopeful that an economically resurgent India will wake up to the importance of preserving the cultural legacy of Satyajit Ray.
In particular, he has a compelling offer for Anil Ambani — given that it was Ambani’s highly visible investment in Hollywood that reinforced the image in Packard’s mind that “rich Indians” could take over the mantle of preserving Ray’s works. As part of this offer, if Ambani could fund the restoration of the rest of Ray’s films and set up an endowment to carry on the Ray Center project, he would get world distribution rights to all those films.

It would be small change for Ambani — and in return, says Basu, he will have earned the honour of having rescued Ray’s legacy, and get world distribution rights to all of Ray’s films. That’s the kind of proposition that will, he reckons, appeal to an astute businessman like Ambani.

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