Cinema, for Satyajit Ray, was all about salvation

‘Shatranj ke Khilari’ was as neatly planned as a game of chess. The knight wanted even the tiniest pawn to be perfect.

Published : Oct 18, 2021 06:00 IST

Age and decrepitude failed to dismay him , as did the vicissitudes of the box office. For Satyajit Ray, redemption lay in cinema, cinema with all its rough edges and stark frames. When he made a film, he shared a part of his own emotion with the audiences; be it love or joy, pain or sorrow, each emotion was communicated to the audiences like a shared experience. It was not just the despair or disillusionment of characters; it was the unexpressed anguish of the vast multitudes that Ray tapped. Those unaccustomed to his ways of the world often found him a man with thick eyebrows and a grim facade. The real world lay inside his mind where ideas swarmed and images abounded. Nobody thought like him; nobody could conceive or execute like him. No film-maker in the history of our nation had given us a film like Pather Panchali , a film which held a mirror to the nation still stuck on the intoxicating joys of Independence. Even as India kept its tryst with destiny, there were Indians for whom the real challenge lay in putting food on the family’s plate; for whom the English expression of putting food on the table was an indefinable luxury. Some accused him of selling India’s poverty to the West; many were uncomfortable with the portrayal of the dark underbelly of a still young nation, and a society that, for all its espousal of egalitarian principles, had failed to walk the talk.

Pather Panchali was followed by Aparajito, a film that was defeated by the audience at the box office; maybe they wanted an escape from the reality of life. Aparajito, too, found favour abroad, won laurels and awards. The pain of box office rejection dimmed, and Ray continued to do what only he could: make films like nobody else. Slowly, even grudgingly, the connoisseurs of cinema outside Bengal made space for Ray’s cinema. In Delhi’s historic Chandni Chowk, the audiences who used to turn up every Sunday to watch the works of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa at the Victorian-style Moti cinema, started putting in requests with the management to show Ray’s fare. Their wish was granted. In another part of the city, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru watched Pather Panchali at Regal. Two of his Cabinet colleagues went down to Mohini cinema, soon rechristened Sudarshan.

His legendary status meant a producer with an eye for rewards beyond the jingle of the turnstiles longed to join hands with him. So it was with Suresh Jindal, a man who had discovered Ray in the United States, and while admiring his craft, somehow allowed himself the unfathomable dream of meeting, and even working with, the legend. It was not easy. As he recounts in My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of Shatranj ke Khilari (published by HarperCollins): “My first film, Rajnigandha , based on the story ‘Yehi Sach Hai’ by Mannu Bhandari, turned out to be the sleeper hit of the year. Since almost everyone involved with the project was new to Hindi cinema—along with the euphoria of having made it in the film industry, I was confused about what project to undertake next.”

Also read: A Century of Ray

The project, as it turned out, was Shatranj ke Khilari, the first time Ray stepped out of the culture of Bengal and into the heartland of Awadh. He talked of history, he depicted the culture of the age, the price a nation had to pay for the folly of a prince who would rather soak in the joys of Kathak than shore up his martial prowess at the time of imperial expansion. Initially, though, Jindal had just one thing in mind: he wanted to meet Ray, and maybe, just maybe, in the silent recesses of mind, nurtured the idea of working with him on a film, any film, any language, even a language he did not understand. As he says in the book, which reveals Ray to be a stickler for perfection, a man who did not hesitate to reject the producer’s suggestion of casting Vidya Sinha in the film, or shooting a scene again because the scarf of one of the artists was missing. “Satyajit Ray delivered the convocation address at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune…. He was addressing eager young graduates, raring to make ‘art for art’s sake’, prepared to alienate audiences in their quest for expression. But in his speech, he gently urged them not to have contempt for the audience because ‘a film-maker who blames the audience for not liking his films is akin to a cook blaming the diner for not liking a badly cooked fish.’” In that little advice lay a nugget of wisdom.

These words gave Jindal hope that the maestro might be open to the idea of making a film for a larger audience, that maybe he might just agree to a Hindi film. Hindi was, as is well known, not Ray’s best language of expression. His soul, his body, his very being, was soaked in the colours of Bengal. Ray had already refused offers from highly respected film-makers such as S.S. Vasan, Tarachand Barjatya and Raj Kapoor. What chance did Jindal stand?

Well, the audacity of youth, its very impudence, yielded a harvest for Jindal. What he could scarcely imagine became a reality. It was the summer of 1974, actually September, when Jindal landed up at the flat of Tinnu Anand ofKalia and Major Saab fame. Much before Kalia, Tinnu Anand had been Ray’s assistant for five years. His anecdotes about the legend stoked the fire further. And Jindal managed to put in a request with him to meet Ray. The impossible suddenly turned not just possible but also probable as the great man invited him to Calcutta. Shatranj ke Khilari was not even a star in the distance, but the night of anticipation kept Jindal awake. “To be around him would be like completing an entire curriculum in cinema, better than any offered across the globe. I was a rookie, only one film old. My effrontery amazed and scared me,” writes Jindal in the book. Self-doubts and anxiety kept him company all night before dread and despair succumbed to dawn.

Also read: ‘I am not conscious of being a humanist’

That day, the two met. Jindal, still in his early thirties, and taking his first baby steps in the film industry. The master in his mid-fifties, and blessed with an aura unprecedented. Jindal was 5’6”, Ray 6’6”. Jindal had lived everywhere around the world except Calcutta. For Ray the world came to Calcutta. The young man hailed from a Jain-Baniya family of Punjab. Ray was born in a family where history resided on the mantelpiece; his grandfather had been a leader of the Brahmo Samaj. Ray probably inherited his reformist streak from there, the way he talked of superstition and orthodoxy in Devi , the way he talked of a nuclear family in Charulata . Of course, Ray was all this and much more. As for mantelpiece, besides history it had ample space for awards graced with Ray’s name.

Then Jindal followed Ray into his famous study, a place where the world widened its vistas, where each book was a treasure, and each treasure gave off its secrets every time one visited it. For Jindal, it was a Renaissance moment, the kind you pinch yourself to believe. There sat Ray on his swivel chair, a table in front with a telephone on it which he answered himself, two windows to soak in the sights, and a piano in another corner. Music, books, sights, the cynosure of the world could be so simple, so untouched by all the adulation, all the glory.

“Sir, I would like you to make a film in Hindi, or in English, or if not, then in Bengali,” Jindal finally mustered up courage to air a dream so personal yet so impudent.

“If you come across a story that you like, let me know. If I like it, I will do a screenplay,” said Ray. Jindal could scarcely believe his luck. The master had nodded.

Then came the moment to die for. Ray, yes, the great Ray, had a story to tell; a story he agreed to relate to Jindal if he promised not to tell anybody. It came with a warning: It would be Ray’s first Hindi film, his costliest film, about four or five times more than his most expensive Bengali film.

Also read: How Satyajit Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career

It was a story by the unforgettable Premchand. And thus was born Shatranj ke Khilari , a film that came in the decade marked by Sholay , populated by Amar Akbar Anthony and Deewar , and loved for Shatranj ke Khilari , not quite Ray’s best, but hey, his less than best was better than the best of all else.

Ray had a precondition: he would make the film his way. The producer wanted to give him the signing amount. Ray refused. “First, I will write a draft of the screenplay, and if it is satisfactory, we can discuss money.” Jindal smiled and withdrew the envelope. The master was richer. He was on the verge of doing a film soaked in the dialect, dance, rhythm and colours of Awadh, a region that is meticulously captured in our history books. It was the region from where started the First War of Independence back in May 1857. It brought together Begum Hazrat Mahal and Rani Lakshmi Bai, Tantia Tope and Ahmadullah. And of course, the happy poet and reluctant warrior Bahadur Shah Zafar, a man who could find beauty in the face of death and desolation. Then there was Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow, often lampooned, occasionally hailed, for his patronage of arts and culture.

Shatranj ke Khilari was as neatly planned as a game of chess. The knight wanted even the tiniest pawn to be perfect. Back in the 1970s, each afternoon was spent in delicious anticipation of the postman, then opening the letter like unwrapping a gift. Ray wrote letters and letters. And followed them with some more. Many of them were written to the producer Suresh Jindal, who has happily reproduced them in the book. Many others to the actors who might fit a particular role. He wrote about coming to Bombay to meet Sanjeev Kumar whom he wanted to play the role of Mirza, one of the chess players, Saeed Jaffrey to play the other chess-playing nobleman. Kumar suffered a heart attack, but fortunately recovered. Ray waited four months for him to get better. Amjad Khan, he of larger-than-life Gabbar of Sholay , was to play Wajid Ali Shah, effeminate, even coy, a man who found not in his wife but in music the muse of his life. He suffered a near-fatal car crash. He was in bed for several months. Ray, exhibiting the spirit of a chess player, waited. And waited some more. He would not make the film without Amjad. Every week the two, Ray and Jindal, now with their names almost incredibly on the same sheet of paper, exchanged mails. Every exchange took the film forward, if only just. Ray’s letters were brevity personified. His eye for detail unmatched. His ability to stand his ground worthy of emulation. When Jindal suggested Hema Malini to be cast, Ray responded, “Hema has the drawback of looking a south Indian from a mile away. As such she would be a slur on my reputation for meticulous casting.” Ray’s words could be merciless. They could sting.

Also read: ‘He lived life cinema’

In stepped Shabana Azmi, forewarned by Jindal about her small role. “Suresh, if Ray wants me to hold a jhadu [broom] for one shot only, I will gladly do it. Work with Ray? Wow!” Shabana Azmi exclaimed, and another piece in the Shatranj puzzle fell into place. Added to the cast was Victor Banerjee, then a few summers short of reaching David Lean’sA Passage to India . Then came long sessions with Pandit Birju Maharaj for his thumris for the Nawab’s palace, a couple of meetings with Saswati Sen’s father to convince him to allow her to dance to a Maharaj thumri in the film, much like she danced on stage, and many letters to Shama Zaidi, who could bring yesterday to life today with her costumes.

The filming commenced in December 1976 and was completed in June 1977. It took 67 days to complete the film’s principal photography. And as Jindal discovered, and writes honestly in the book, “A Ray’s film was solely his film. He wrote it, directed it, operated the camera, edited it, composed the music, and designed the sets and the publicity materials…. Ray was truly a Renaissance man. There seemed to be nothing he could not do.” His sets had the serenity of an ashram, no confusion, no tantrums, no glitches. When he was not happy with an actor’s shot, he never said so directly. He would instead ask, “Was the lighting okay? Was the dialogue okay?” And then, “Good, good,” he would assure the actor, “but will you please do another take for me?” The actors would be more than happy to oblige, to learn, to improve. To be with the master was an education.

As for Jindal’s book, it makes nostalgia a viable companion. And gives us insights into the greatest Hindi film that Ray ever made, a film made possible with the alignment of a young man’s almost impossible dream with the genius of a peerless film-maker. The film did not exactly rake in the moolah at the box office but left the annals of Hindi cinema richer. The vagaries of the turnstiles seldom affected Ray. He had his own rhythm, a world his own. Cinema, for Ray, was all about salvation, one film at a time.

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