Sometime in 1977, I saw the film Shatranj ke Khiladi in Bombay’s Regal cinema. It was an afternoon show and if my memory is right, the second day after release. The vast balcony was empty save for a few scattered viewers and after the interval a few of them did not come back.
Two days later I went again – the film had moved me and most of all, Amjad Khan’s outstanding turn as an effete king but an artistic soul was deeply touching. Khan’s previous film was Sholay, in which he had dominated the screen as an evil dacoit; here, he was a ruler who could not understand, much less control, the rapidly-changing events around him. Each performance was terrific, but I went back for Khan.
At the time, I had heard stories of how the film’s release had been sabotaged by powerful Bombay film industry interests, who did not want Satyajit Ray to succeed in their domain – this was his first Hindi film and its success would show them up as purveyors of crass and loud commercial cinema.
Reading Suresh Jindal’s book My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of Shatranj ke Khiladi, those rumours seem to get confirmed – distributors, after committing to showing the film, backed out saying it was too slow, Bombay’s stars made mean comments about it in the media and generally word was spread that it was a slow film with no entertainment value, as defined by Hindi cinema.
But, I wonder – had these powerful producers not said or done anything, would Shatranj ke Khiladi have been a success at the box office? The film is slow, no doubt about it – an American critic later called it “formal and static” – and it certainly has nothing to entertain those punters who may be looking for song and dance they can whistle to. It wouldn’t have been a box office hit.
But despite its mannered approach and gentle pace, it is a great film, all the more significant because Ray was out of his comfort zone of Bengal. This is a film to savour and see more than once to catch nuances that slip by in the first viewing – and what a pleasure it is to see Saeed Jaffrey, Sanjeev Kumar, Tom Alter, Shabana Azmi, Richard Attenborough and even Veena in a small role, on the screen.
The story of the making of the film, as detailed in this charming – and candid – book, is equally enjoyable. Jindal was a most unlikely film producer – a ‘hot-headed’ engineering graduate from UCLA, he was a product of the counter-culture then prevalent in the US. Student protests, drugs and rock and roll, he saw them all and came back to India and ended up making a small film with Basu Chatterjee. The film, Rajnigandha, was a sleeper hit and Jindal found himself with a lot of money and bitten by the film bug. He had seen a lot of Ray’s work in the US and wanted to somehow work with him – he brought up the subject with his friend Tinnu Anand, who had been Ray’s assistant director for five years. Anand set up the meeting and Jindal recounts going to the great man’s books-laden Calcutta home. Fortuitously, Ray too was toying with the idea of making a film in Hindi – he had had several offers from Bombay producers but had declined them. Now he felt the time may have come; he also had a story in mind.
Premchand’s short story Shatranj ke Khiladi is about two Lucknowi noblemen who are so obsessed with chess that they neglect their families and remain oblivious to the monumental political changes taking place around them. The British are closing in on Awadh and are about to remove Wajid Ali Shah, whom they dislike because they think he is more interested in music and dance rather than matters of state.
Ray decided to work on both tracks and assembled scores of books to fully understand the history and ethos of the 1850s. He read up on the language of the times, the costumes, the music and the politics, and travelled to meet experts of the period. It took two full years to produce the first draft of the script – hardly surprising then that the movie was a visual delight and also full of authentic details.
Jindal tells the story through the copious correspondence between the two, in which all manner of things, ranging from shooting schedules, casting – Rakhee, Vidya Sinha, Hema Malini were among those whose names came up – and monetary arrangements were discussed. Towards the end, the relationship between the two, always warm, becomes frosty because of what Jindal calls misunderstandings caused by the crew close to Ray. On his part, Ray takes up cudgels on behalf of his long-standing team and gets quite angry. It all threatens to become a bit petty, though both make up and move on. Jindal continues to maintain his great love and regard for the director, a ‘Renaissance Man’.
Ray comes across as a man engaged in every aspect of film making: drawing sets, composing music and even operating the camera. His partner, the great cinematographer Subrata Mitra, had left him because of this.
Shatranj ke Khiladi turned out to be a fine film, though Ray had to face criticism that it was not political enough and almost let the British colonials off the hook. The lack of political engagement in his work has been noted by many others too. Ray’s biographer Andrew Robinson writes in his introduction to Jindal’s book:
“Most Indians probably expected a more full-blooded treatment of the Raj in the manner of Richard Attenborough’s later Gandhi; Ray’s restraint and irony towards both sides did not please them. The hostile critic in the Illustrated Weekly complained that the film gave no sense of the way that discontent over the 1856 Annexation helped to bring about the 1857 Uprising.”
The film was beset with many problems – Sanjeev Kumar’s heart attack, Khan’s accident, money troubles and in the end, mix ups in release prints, which the laboratory possibly did at the behest of Ray’s Bombay rivals. “I have lost, at least temporarily, my zest for making Hindi films,” Ray writes to Jindal in mid-1978. He went on to make Sadgati, based on Premchand’s story, for Doordarshan, but nothing after that, despite Jindal’s request to work together again. Jindal produced Attenborough’s Gandhi next.
Jindal winds up with a story of going to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the shock on Ray’s face when he sees the aliens who emerge from space ships – they are exactly as he had envisioned in his script The Alien, which was doing the rounds of Hollywood. But there was nothing he could do about it.
If there is a flaw in the book it is that Jindal does not give too many details of how Ray shot the film, the interplay between the actors and the director, the cultural issues of dealing with a Sanjeev Kumar, a Saeed Jaffrey or a Shabana Azmi, of Bombay actors working with a Calcutta man. We find out that Ray was a simple person who was happiest working on his films, music and art, and who did not insist on fancy five star hotels or first class tickets, but we miss out on how Ray was on the sets. But there is so much to interest the real film buff, the Ray fan and most of all, anyone who remembers and loves that film, that it doesn’t really matter.