The making of a queer figure: Satyajit Ray's interpretation of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in 'Shatranj ke Khilari'

It is said that in Shatranj ke Khilari, Satyajit Ray imagines a ‘non-Western’ mode of resistance. His depiction of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah cannot be understood in terms of the colonial binary of ‘effeminacy’ and ‘masculinity’.

Published : Oct 21, 2021 06:00 IST

AmJad Khan,  who played Wajid Ali Shah, performing Kathak/raas leela in ‘Shatranj ke Khilari’. Wajid Ali Shah was possibly one Nawab who was overthrown because he was queer and a writer, singer and dancer, and Ray’s portrayal gives more than a hint of this.

AmJad Khan, who played Wajid Ali Shah, performing Kathak/raas leela in ‘Shatranj ke Khilari’. Wajid Ali Shah was possibly one Nawab who was overthrown because he was queer and a writer, singer and dancer, and Ray’s portrayal gives more than a hint of this.

For a researcher involved in studiesof literature, cinema and culture, Satyajit Ray’s films appear as emblematic narratives of Bengal’s problematic journey through colonialism, modernity and decolonisation. Beginning with his magnum opus, the Apu Trilogy (1955-1959), to Jalsaghar (1958), Devi (1960), Mahanagar (1963), Charulata (1964), Kapurush-o-Mahapurush (1965) to his Calcutta trilogy comprising Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1975), one observes the unfolding of entangled historical trajectories concerning our collective and transforming pasts. My point of exploration, however, is not his entire body of influential films; rather, I shift the focus to his ‘first’ Hindi venture, Shatranj ke Khilari (1977; adapted from Premchand’s short story), which was possibly one of his most expensive and expansive historical projects. Moreover, as cultural theorists have noted, with Shatranj ke Khilari Ray transported his modernist sensibilities within the framework of nationalist discourses.

While Ray has adapted from Premchand later as well ( Sadgati , 1981), the story of the making of Shatranj ke Khilari —as narrated to me by Shama Zaidi, the film’s Hindi/Urdu dialogue writer and costume designer— throws light on the critical practices with regard to historical narratives, adaptation, research, processes of writing a screenplay, production design, art, setting, costume, and the entire gamut of film production (also see My Adventures with Satyajit Ray , Suresh Jindal, 2017). Within the fold of my current work on “film, labour, gender”, I revisit the accounts of the making of Shatranj ke Khilari and in particular consider the characterisation of Wajid Ali Shah (1822-1887), the Nawab of Awadh whose princely state was annexed by the East India Company in 1856 and who was exiled in Metiabruz, Calcutta, in the same year. Wajid Ali Shah, who was quite a controversial figure because of his political (in)actions and his personal/sexual life, was a poet of repute and an exponent of the Kathak dance form and theatre, although in Premchand’s story he is virtually a background figure and a symbol of decadence (and defeat). In fact, it was Ray’s thoughtful reworking, writing, discretion and direction which gave shape to the character and made Wajid Ali Shah into a “dignified” and “tragic figure” (Shama Zaidi’s words), even if Ray had to labour to “like” the character (see Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye , 1989) and had said: “I just could not feel any sympathy for this … character. And, unless I feel some sympathy, I cannot make a film.” Shama Zaidi describes how during her research she found material on Wajid Ali Shah, particularly Parikhana , supposedly written by the Nawab, containing details of his multiple sexual liaisons (see Parikhana by Wajid Ali Shah, published in Hindi, 2017). When Shama Zaidi offered to translate sections of the text, Ray was reluctant. “It had taken him a long time to get to like Wajid, and this unsavoury information would put him off the character that he had chosen to portray as a tragic though pathetic character,” she narrated.

Also read: A Century of Ray

Shama Zaidi recalled Ray’s words:

“After months of study, of the Nawabs, of Lucknow, and of everything, I saw the King as an artist, a composer who made some contributions to the form of singing that developed in Lucknow. ...Research revealed that the deposed King Wajid Ali Shah was an extraordinary character. … both the King and Outram were complex, three-dimensional characters. …I see a resemblance between Wajid and the nobleman in Jalsaghar …”

My concern regarding the figuration of Wajid Ali Shah grows from varied perspectives. First, the haunting song Babul mora naihar chhooto jaaye penned by him, which has been immortalised by the extraordinarily gifted singer-actor K.L. Saigal and others. The song, evoking the theme of separation and recited from the point of view of a bride who is leaving her parental home ( Jaaye babul ghar apno, main chali piya ki des ), has been performed by a number of celebrated artistes such as Gauhar Jaan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Siddheswari Devi, Begum Akhtar, Naina Devi, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amonkar as well as by Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh. I came across this song during my early phase of research on Indian film studios, and ever since, the author of the lyric—a decadent Nawab as it were—has provoked a series of related and newer research. Indeed, as suggested by Shama Zaidi in a personal conversation, in Ray’s imagination Wajid Ali Shah was “redeemed at least partially by his gifts as a poet and musician, a composer … striving to retain his dignity in the face of annihilation...”

Introductory sequence

The film opens with a close shot of the game of chess, while the voice-over by Amitabh Bachchan narrates how chess is a metaphor for (futile) war and vice versa. Then the narration emphasises Mir Roshan Ali (played by Saeed Jaffrey) and Mirza Sajjad Ali’s (played by Sanjeev Kumar) luxurious lives and fanciful nature (“ shaukin mijaaz ”); and scenes depicting public life in Lucknow lead to a shot of the throne and a scene in which Wajid Ali Shah (played by Amjad Khan) performs Kathak/ raas leela with other dancers.

Critics have described Ray’s characterisation of Wajid Ali Shah in the film as “effete and effeminate”. For instance, Rajbans Khanna in his review of the film in 1978 (“Ray’s Wajid Ali Shah”, Illustrated Weekly of India , 22, pages 49-53) famously opined: “[T]he film shows Ray’s unfortunate failure to understand either the atmosphere of the period dealt with or the character of the pivotal figure in the tragic drama that unfolded in 1856—the character of Wajid Ali.” Khanna also contended that Ray had failed to portray “the much-maligned character”. Following Ray’s response to the criticism (“My Wajid Ali is not ‘effete and effeminate’”, Illustrated Weekly of India ), Khanna in his rejoinder commented: “The visuals offered an interpretation of Wajid Ali as an effeminate king.” (“Ray has missed the wood for the trees”, Illustrated Weekly of India .) Truly, as reflected in Premchand’s story, both Leftist and nationalist discourses were severely critical of decadent Nawabs and feudal lords as epitomised by Mir and Mirza, and Wajid Ali Shah himself, who effectively became compradors of an imperial power.

Also read: Cinema, for Satyajit Ray, was all about salvation

Vinay Lal in a provocative essay (1996) elaborates on the question of the so-called “effeminate” characteristics of Wajid Ali Shah. The piece underlines how the film opens with raas leela , which questions the problems of so-called effeminacy:

“The rasa leela … is the dance of heavenly enjoyment in which gopis savour the delights of Lord Krishna’s presence in their midst. ….In the tradition of Krishna the lover-God, his androgyny is clearly hinted at, and it is Krishna’s feminine attributes that make him attractive to women. …”

Lal takes his argument beyond the popular interpretations and shows how Ray presents a clash of two cultures and that what Wajid Ali Shah represents cannot be understood in terms of the colonial binary of ‘effeminacy’ and ‘masculinity’:

“Had Ray wished to accept the colonial construction of Indian sexuality, he could have rendered Wajid Ali Shah, following Premchand, Sharar, and his other sources, into a more pathetic creature. … Ray’s Wajid Ali makes, by way of contrast, a dignified departure. ...when Wajid Ali, walking over to Outram, hands him his crown while refusing to sign the treaty. … Wajid Ali behaves as might a woman, with a degree of supposed unpredictability …”

In the light of contemporary debates on queer subjects, Wajid Ali Shah thus becomes a pivotal and decisive figure of protest, if not an exceptional and pioneering queer artiste of historical import.

Reena Dube in her book titled Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players and Postcolonial Theory mentions how William Henry Sleeman, a British administrator, observed in what way Wajid Ali Shah lived “exclusively, in the society of fiddlers, eunuchs, and women—he has done so since his childhood, and is likely to do so to the last…”. Reena Dube further elaborates:

“[I]n Sleeman’s catalogue eunuchs are less-than-men, and women are inferior to men. … Wajid’s incapacity for governance is sufficiently proven by the fact of his spending time with mimic men, less than men, and inferior to men. Sleeman also manages to suggest that … his [Wajid’s] understanding has become so emasculated that he is altogether unfit for the conduct of his domestic much less his public affairs.”

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

In short, Wajid Ali Shah was possibly one Nawab who was overthrown because he was queer and a writer, singer and dancer. Reena Dube says: “Ray’s film turns Premchand’s satiric tale on its head.… In Ray’s film, Premchand’s satire about the effete nawabs becomes an exploration of colonised sexuality, marriage, and culture in relation to the politics of the era.” In effect, Ray not only created the multifaceted character of the Nawab through his research, writing and film-making, he also fleshed out the characters of Khurshid (played by Shabana Azmi), the desiring and neglected wife of Mirza, and that of Nafisa (played by Farida Jalal), the sexually adventurous wife of Mir, as well as other characters like Nandalal and Kallu.

The performing body of Amjad Khan

Thirdly and finally, I am also thinking of the performing body of Amjad Khan, who essayed the role of Wajid Ali Shah. Amjad Khan had appeared on the scene via his immortal portrayal of Gabbar in Sholay (1975, directed by Ramesh Sippy) and was actually not Ray’s first choice for the role. It was Suresh Jindal, the producer of the film, who coaxed Ray into casting him. Nonetheless, following Amjad Khan’s near fatal accident, Ray postponed his project for months and waited until he recovered. Shama Zaidi recalls that the day of filming the scene in which General James Outram arrives at Wajid Ali Shah’s palace to deliver the treaty of annexation was probably Amjad Khan’s first day on the set. A long trolley of about 25 feet was laid, and the lights were connected to a dimmer in order to create the ambience of the setting sun, which was juxtaposed with Amjad Khan’s recitation of “ Jab chhod chaleLucknownagari ”. Shama Zaidi recollects how Amjad Khan had rehearsed without much emotion, but during the filming he appeared to choke as he uttered the cherished word “Lucknow”, then he paused for a moment and shut his eyes. She adds: “There were about 200 people watching the shot and everyone had tears in their eyes, including Manikda [Ray], who exclaimed ‘I was not expecting this, Amjad. That was fantastic’.”

The said scene opens with a close shot of Wajid Ali Shah petting his cat. The orange light/glow of the setting sun on his face emphasises the grimness of the situation. The ministers inform him that the Queen Mother is planning to visit the Queen of England with her plea; moreover, they also notify him that his men are ready to join forces and fight the British. Ray cuts to a panoramic shot of the setting sun and cuts back to a shot of the Nawab. As the camera tracks in, it is evident that he is choking with pain and emotion. Thereafter, he begins to hum the song— Jab chhod chaleLucknownagari (As we left Lucknow city). As a series of close-ups builds the tension, Wajid Ali Shah speaks to himself: “The Company can take away my crown, but how will you make me bow my head?” Furthermore, as the scene gets dimmer gradually (thereby evoking the falling light of dusk), he expresses his will to meet the British officers the next morning and disarm his army. Following this, a piercing sound of shehnai engulfs the scene.

Also read: Vision of a land: Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay's Bengal in Satyajit Ray's cinema

Shama Zaidi remembers how they had found the song: “When I read the words of the thumriJab chhod chale Lucknow nagari …’, I realised that the line was a beat short and since I was in Lucknow looking at the material in the State Museum, I decided to seek the well-known Hindi writer, Amritlal Nagar’s advice. He took one look at it and said—‘Bibi, I am willing to jump into the Gomti river in the freezing winter and catch hold of Bajrangbali’s tail and swear that this thumri is not by Wajid Ali Shah.’ I said that it may well be the case, but it is ascribed to him and it fits in so well with the mood of the scene. …The thumri added the note of poignancy that this scene required, especially since Amjad sang it in his own voice…” In fact, whereas Rajbans Khanna accused Ray of historical inaccuracy, Reena Dube presents an interesting reading of “post-colonial” confrontations with (imperial) power and masculinity. Writing about “Wajid’s rhetoric: The feminisation of the colonised”, Reena Dube shows at length how Ray’s Wajid Ali Shah speaks to the “unbearable, unspeakable, and non-narrativisable” through various rhetorical devices. She writes: “Ray brings us face to face once again with the fact that our postcolonial subjectivity is the subject-effect of repression.” Truly, to borrow from Reena Dube, “[a]s a rhetorical strategy Wajid’s exaggerated subservience sets the stage for Ray’s meditation on the non-Western rhetoric of resistance”.

Portrayal of annexation

I wish to conclude by discussing the scene in which the news of annexation arrives. The scene opens with a performance of the song “ Kanha main toh se hari ” (Krishna I go down to you), choreographed by the legendary Birju Maharaj, and inter-cuts with shots of Wajid Ali Shah watching intently and petting his cat. Ray also cuts to shots of the minister, looking at the Nawab with agony and abhorrence. The sequence is long (about six minutes), and the pace is languid, as the camera’s observant gaze accentuates the art of Kathak (developed under the patronage of Wajid Ali Shah) and the nuances of mudra (gestures), bhau (expressions) and footwork. Following the performance, the court is dismissed, and then the Nawab looks curiously at his minister, now seated next to him. He enquires: “What is the matter?” At this, his minister breaks into tears. Wajid Ali Shah says: “What is this? Control yourself. Did the Resident sahib narrate one of his ghazal s [poems]? Only music and poetry can make a man teary eyed.” Finally, the minister controls his feelings and delivers the message that the Nawab has been dethroned.

Ray does not provide any “expression shot” of the Nawab to portray his anguish. Rather, in a subsequent scene (preceded by scenes between Mir, Mirza and Khurshid), he elaborates on Wajid Ali Shah’s sense of loss and self-realisation. Wajid Ali Shah recounts how he was seduced by the glitter of the throne, and yet, he tried his best to be a good king. Thereafter, he narrates in what way he had inscribed interesting names to his troops—Banke (Krishna), Tircha (literally ‘oblique’ or non-straight), Akhtari (wife of Prophet), Dadri (musical name), Ghanghor (heavy rain). Moreover, his Janana (female) troops were called Haseen (beautiful), Mashuk (beloved), and so on. He also describes the splendour of the horses, which used to trot around, although the British never approved of his army. Afterwards, he delves into a long monologue and asks his men: “Do you remember my song … Tadap, Tadap, guzri rayn, kaun des gaayo savariya [spent the night suffering, to which place has my beloved gone]?” He also states that the song was written while he sat on the throne. The Nawab, thereafter, falls into a reverie as he recalls the moment of the song’s creation and subsequently begins to sing—sud bhul gaayi main bawariya … Tadap, tadap (I lost my senses in love)—and adds: “This is my reply.” Engagingly, he remarks that he never hid his “truth” (identity?), and moreover, his people loved him. “Has any King of England ever penned poems?” asks the Nawab.

Aural and visual codes

I propose that a range of aural and visual codes makes the queering of the colonial and nationalist histories possible. For instance, in the film, Lucknow is presented as the beloved of Wajid Ali Shah; moreover, Radha-Krishna love songs are evoked repeatedly, and Wajid Ali Shah, a devout Muslim, takes up the role of Radha yearning for her lover. In addition, I wish to underscore the uses of the affective close-ups of Amjad Khan and his vocal performance, which attains an autonomous quality through its applications. Anupama Chopra in Sholay: The Making of a Classic (2000) narrated how during the making of Sholay the makers had almost decided to dub Amjad Khan’s voice with a substitute because he seemingly “lacked” the booming baritone of the typical villain. Nevertheless, it is the same voice that renders the soulful songs of Wajid Ali Shah.

Also read: Critical insider: Satyajit Ray's cinematic trilogies

Likewise, by means of the face/close-ups of Amjad Khan the film reimagines the figure of the Nawab and transports us to the historical magic hour. It also presents the intensity, longing and fervour of a queer artiste who was a Nawab. Such figuration, therefore, enables us to envision alternative modes of defiance.

Madhuja Mukherjee is professor, Department of Film Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a film-maker. Her first feature film, Carnival (2012), premiered at the 41st International Film Festival Rotterdam, and her second feature, Deep6 , will have its World Premiere at the 26th Busan International Film Festival 2021.

(The writer is deeply grateful to Shama Zaidi andAnup Singh.)


Chopra, Anupama (2000): Sholay: The Making of a Classic, Delhi: Penguin India.

Dube, Reena (2005): Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players and Postcolonial Theory: Culture, Labour and the Value of Alterity, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jindal, Suresh (2017): My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of “Shatranj ke Khilari”, Noida: HarperCollins.

Lal, Vinay (1996): “Sexual Moves, Colonial

Manoeuvres, and an Indian Game: Masculinity and Femininity in The Chess Players”, Manushi, 92-93, January-April, pp. 41-50.

Robinson, Andrew (1989): Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, Berkley: University of California Press.

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