Every time he stared at the desktop, the down-in-the-mouth look of his reflection on the screen was hard to ignore. As if his true self came out face to face in an abrupt blaze of spiritual enlightenment. While his mechanical strokes keyed in another lifeless report titled “Less flesh, more trade – the gory tale of prostitution”, his mind was busy contemplating the approaching dead end in his own life.

This was his last day in office. The tabloid needed him no longer. But who did, anyway?

He got up from the revolving chair with the uneven cushion, went to the stinking loo, and came back in a jiffy – much earlier that the time one would assume in answering a nature’s call. How many would suspect, he wondered, that it was only his near-fatal restlessness begging for some movement that engineered the futile trip.

Still unsure about the story, he brought about a non-committal end to the torture with the line

“These vulnerable victims of an age-old flesh trade continue to suffer the wrath of pouncing beasts even as the world around them chooses to look away”

Today, there was no remorse to prick his conscience as he filed the report for the skinny sub-editor to fake a post-mortem. To hell with the trash. Tons of such garbage fill the advertisement-deprived blank spaces in umpteen newspapers everyday.

Newspapers run by warring industrial groups in a theatrical war against the establishment. And with himself dismissed, who cared if his report met the same fate. In fact, it would rhyme well with his destiny if it did.

Picking his torn leather bag bursting at the seams, much like his anxiety, he came down the creaking stairs of the office building.

He was now to come after a week to collect his paltry dues. In humanitarian interests of its employees, his caring employers would donate a month’s salary as compensation for the termination.

That was enough to feed an ageing bachelor with a queer lifestyle till he found a new abode that would harbour his redundant conviction. His farewell treat was an inconsequential affair in the roadside canteen, a couple of old mates and the sole peon for company.

The cool air seemed to fan his agony but was some respite from the stuffy confines of the editorial room. As he walked towards the friendly railway station in faltering steps, he checked the jingling treasure in his pocket that stuffed more metal than paper. Turning his back to the over bridge that offered to take him to the platform with unfailing regularity, he went to the desolate Pan shop in the corner of the busy lane.

The familiar face behind the hanging strings of tobacco and Pan masala pouches was his most reliable source of nightlife information. Today, the Panwala was amused at the special request from the “paper guy” of a packet of condom along with the regular brand of tobacco.

The stonewalled heritage building looked exceptionally bright, like an old, wrinkled woman dressed in bridal wear. Tube lights in the staircase were a rare sight in structures of this variety. In sharp contrast, the building was the home of shady acts in dark corners.

He climbed his way to the third floor with a slow, measured pace where the reddish eyes of the Madam greeted him. Thanks to his deceptive white-collar appearance, she took some time to come to terms with his basic instinct wrapped in fine print.

And almost in a flash, her instinctive respect for the sophisticated tribe made way for the plastic smile of day-to-day commerce. She turned the soiled curtain to allow a peak inside and named the price.

Ignoring her playful abuses, he entered the dingy room glowing in the cheap red light of 20 watts. She sat there, wearing a dead expression to match the wood of the broken furniture around. Yellowing straps of her white bra stuck out of a tarnished red blouse, deliberately buttoned the wrong way.

The act did not last long. Without the foreplay, it was quite disgusting in hindsight. He dressed up, eager to win back his place of pride in the civilized world.

Madam was waiting outside in earnest for a closer look at the new specimen. He found her eyeing him intently as his hand slid into his pocket.

“They all come here,” she swore under her breath, glowing in the pride of her social acknowledgment.

The last train back home hardly looked like one, carrying scores of tired souls dozing to the tunes of their middle class fate. Leaning against the metallic wall of the foot board, he thought of his carnal escapade and a broad smile spread over his face.

The guilt of the impetuous act also accommodated a relief of an inadvertent escape. Far away from the fairy-tale stories of the fourth estate, he was now free to play the victim that he was.

The masquerade was over.

When two great minds met on a chess board!

The great filmmaker Satyajit Ray had not read Munshi Premchand, largely unaware of Hindi and Urdu literature that he was. But in both his Hindi movies based on Premchand's works, one a telefilm “Sadgati” (The deliverance) and the other a feature “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” (The Chess Players) Ray showed exceptional flair, one, in picking the right literature for screen adaptation and two, in placing the theme on a broader landscape without diluting the author’s conviction. Most of the ingredients for his earlier work, prior to this film, were drawn from a familiar Bengal milieu, though he made no bones of the fact that it was Bhibhuti Bhushan's novel that introduced him to rural Bengal…one that placed Ray on the world map with his magnum opus Pather Panchali- the first of his timeless trilogy classic. Hence his interest in Premchand was admirable, that showed an eye for potent stories as well as a profound understanding of his medium.

My focus here is on Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players), one of the most amazing portrayals of Lucknow against the backdrop of British invasion lurking in the elusive treaties of friendship offered by the East India Company. Premchand sketched an astute parallel between British aspirations and the legendary game, as also, the picture of an 1856 Lucknow drugged in celebration of art and culture under the short-lived regime of Wajid Ali Shah. That the tranquil percolated to the lowest echelons of society is described best in his line - “yaha tak ki phakiron ko paise milte to ve rotiyan na lekar afhim khate ya madak pite” (Even the beggars seemed to prefer opium & liquor over food whenever they had money at hand)

Through his superlative idiom, Premchand exposed the fake morals of his central charaters - Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, friends and landlords reeling in the hypnotic spell of chess, shunning the world around them – the world of family chores, marital duties, cheating wives, social pressures, marching troops, everything else but the chessboard.

Fearing mandatory participation in the war against the Company in the light of the growing adversity, they flee to the outskirts and simulate their relaxed surroundings only to drown back in the game of chess. A trivial dispute in the game soon takes the shape of a war and all of a sudden, family honour is found at stake. Accusing each other of swindling, fraud, borrowed royalty and inferior roots, both lose their lives in a terminal combat, a mutual checkmate of sorts. Through the conflict of the two, Premchand highlights the irony of their beliefs - it was the false pride of individual honour, not the larger cause of their state that was found worthy of sacrifice. Ray retained the paradox in a new flavour –also focusing on the royal checkmate of Wajid Ali Shah tottering in the fake support of the East India Company. Ray keeps the protagonists alive, and makes a telling comment through them in the end…

”Jinse unki biwiyan nahi sambhali, woh angrezon ka kya samnaa karenge” (We can’t handle our wives, how can we cope with the might of the British?)

The characters of General Outram and Captain Weston examining the pros and cons of the king, his tastes, his lifestyle, his women and his art…wrapped in one delightful tête-à-tête is undoubtedly the hallmark of this film… a product of Ray’s exceptional screenplay and one that had V S Naipul shower the famed compliment

“It’s a like a Shakespeare scene. Only three hundred words spoken, but terrific things happen.”

The master that he was, in each department of his profession, Ray was firm on picking the right cast for playing his characters. He had a wealth of talent in his own native land, most of his staple cast would have done justice to the said roles but he never knew compromise. His genius thrived on authentic settings and the result was obvious. Shataranj ke Khiladi, Ray’s most expensive film then, won critical acclaim worldwide in all the right circles. The star cast was impressive, much like the blockbuster Sholay - but more importantly, each artiste lived the role to recreate a splendid slice of history, whether Richard Attenborough as the stoic and ruthless General Outram, Tom Alter as the mild mannered Captain Weston with a soft corner for Indian art, Amjad Khan as Wajid Ali Shah, a mute spectator of his own downfall, Victor Banerjee as the well meaning prime minister Ali Naqi khan, desperately coaxing his somnolent king to take charge, Saeed Jaffery as Mir Roshan Ali, one of the duo falling to the fatal addiction of chess...and of course Sanjeev Kumar himself, then a top-notch star of the bustling Bombay film industry, in one of his outstanding performances as Mirza Sajjad Ali.Shabana Azmi, Leela Mishra, Barry John, Farooq Shaikh, Fareeda Jalal…all stuck the right chord with the audience in their respective cameos. And who can forget the baritone voice-over of Amitabh Bachchan quipping rich insights through the crafty narrative.

A tribute to Premchand, Ray & his crew. ………and the pathos of Avadh beneath the royal splendour and merriment, unaware of the impending doom.

Garm hawa - The film

Garm Hawa (Hot winds) is undoubtedly one of the best movies ever made on the Partition. Director M S Sathyu’s best work till date, it was based on a gripping short story by the immensely talented Ismat Chugtai. As eminent filmmaker Satyajit Ray observed in his review, the poignant theme of the film itself placed it on a pedestal but Sathyu, with playwrights Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi, spared no effort to make the adaptation stand tall on its cinematic merit.And of course, with the luxury of an exceptional star cast, they had every reason to be reassured. Balraj Sahani, Shaukat Azmi, Farooque Sheikh, Jalal Agha, Gita Siddharth..…. The names give an idea of the caliber.

The film revolves around the life of Mirza Salim (Balraj Sahni), a middle-aged shoe manufacturer from Agra. His leather business has flourished over generations and his personal life has been quite fulfilling. But the Partition turns his life upside down as one by one; disaster strikes his household in a chain of tragic events. A Sindhi refugee claims their ancestral dwelling soon after Salim’s elder brother leaves for Pakistan and the house is declared evacuee property. Immediately after shifting to a smaller rented place, his aging mother breathes her last in the ancestral Haveli, her wish fulfilled through the magnanimous gesture of the new owner. Salim Mirza is helpless before the new realities but retains his stoic calm in bidding goodbye to the growing procession of Muslims heading towards Pakistan- his relatives, neighbours and friends among others. His stance rests on the firm belief that things would soon be normal again. But the string of misfortune is longer than he expects. Prime among the tragedies is his daughter’s (Gita Siddharth) suicide, devastated by the tragic end of her love story – not once but twice in her short life.

Finally with a heavy heart, Salim Mirza sets out bag and baggage as the others have. The film ends on a note of leftist hope when his son Sikander (Farooque Sheikh) joins a procession of student activists demanding fair play from the government. The father, after a momentary reckoning, decides to follow suit.

It’s interesting to note the multi-pronged attack the film invited before and after its much-laboured release in 1973. The now controversial BJP luminary L K Advani was then the editor of the RSS mouthpiece Organizer. It is believed he condemned the film by labeling it a Pakistan sponsored initiative. As a result, the producers had a torrid time to get things back on track – what with few distributors backing out besides delay in securing the censor certificate. Even among the people who liked the film, some thought it painted a bleak picture of the Pakistan immigrants showing them as an unpatriotic and immoral lot.

To me, the film beautifully highlighted the agony of the commoners against the backdrop of the socio-economic transformation following the partition. It is as much a story of a wrecked nation and dubious political stratagem as it is of personal trauma and crumbling individual lives, the torture equally vicious on either side of the border. Some accused the director of employing a deliberate leftist twist to Chugtai’s original story of an ordinary stationmaster protagonist, going by Kaifi Azmi’s known communist leanings.

Yes, such twist the tale definitely carried, but did not Azmi enhance the theme, astutely exploiting his stint as an ex-union leader of a shoe factory in the portrayal of a personal trauma of national significance.

The towering presence of Balraj Sahni, his last major appearance on celluloid, is the film's most enduring feature. With his exception, most of the players came from the experimental reservoir of IPTA but the entire cast contributed to the film’s cause in equal measure, so did Shama Zaidi’s authentic Agra settings and Ustad Bahadur Khan’s soulful music.

To this day, people find it hard to believe Sathyu hails from Karnataka. To them, such authentic reproduction of surroundings could only come about with first hand experience rooted in lineage. Such was the effect it had on the insightful audience- very much in minority akin to the subject matter of the film.

The film is replete with memorable scenes depicting pathos of a different league. In one such profound scene, Salim Mirza’s Tonga accidentally upsets a fruit seller’s cart and a near-riot ensues in the Moholla. Advising his Tonga puller to check his mounting emotion, Salim Mirza remarks in his characteristic seasoned voice

“Nayi Nayi Aazadi mili hai, log apna apna matlab nikaal rahe hai” (With a brand new freedom at hand, people are hoisting their own versions.) Such times! Such films!