"Yes, I am in the phone book, and you can knock on my door. Everybody has access to me, anyone who wants to see me. In fact, the people who come to visit on Sunday mornings are often very ordinary folks. Not big stars or anything like that. Some are my old colleagues from advertising days. Others are those who simply feel friendly towards me as a result of the films of mine they have seen. In the end, I think it's rather stupid to raise a wall around oneself."
- Satyajit Ray (in conversation with the renowned film critic and author Bert Cardullo)
For our arrogant stars, conceited producers, snobbish filmmakers, self-centered journalists, and even many Ray admirers, the target audience - of viewers and readers alike - is merely a small, insignificant cog in a large wheel. Wish they learn from a true master!
Suresh Jindal’s highly engaging first-person account of the making of Satyajit Ray’s magnum opus in Hindi, Shatranj ke Khiladi, is a reader’s delight. The film astutely portrays the historic city of Lucknow against the backdrop of British invasion lurking in the elusive treaties of friendship offered by the East India Company. Munshi Premchand sketched one of the most astute parallels 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, the tranquil percolating to the lowest echelons of society. He remarks in a 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 the genius of his superlative idiom, Premchand exposed the fake morals of his central charaters - Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, both landlords & friends and 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 cinematic flavour – equally focused on the royal checkmate of Wajid Ali Shah tottering in the fake support of the East India Company. The character of General Outram probing his deputy Captain Weston to examine the pros and cons of the king, his tastes, his lifestyle, his women and his art, wrapped in one delightful scene, is undoubtedly the hallmark of this film… 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.”
Largely narrated through a verbatim reproduction of letters exchanged between the producer and director - some matter of fact, others fervent – Jindal's book helps us appreciate how the film progressed from ideation to fruition, through a winding route of ghastly twists and turns.It gives us a first-hand view of Ray’s intellect and instinct in surmounting the film’s key challenge, ahead of the peripheral ones, which was about locking horns with the abstraction inherent in portraying the idea of addiction to an intellectual game like chess, which would inevitably invoke silence and inaction on the screen. What could be more fatal for a visual medium? How Ray countered the challenge is for all of us to see, admire and learn by watching this film again and again. But the book immensely helps us put our instinctive audio visual learning in perspective, guided by the perceptive notes of the master himself.
Jindal, the producer of this enduring work, must be profusely thanked for having proactively approached Ray, especially after having delivered an unexpected hit like Rajanigandha, which, although offbeat by Bombay standards, would have surely helped him carve a niche in mainstream Hindi cinema. Instead, he chose to tread a truly off-the-wall path laden with landmines. This was a project that not only demanded deeper pockets and a big heart, it also called for unimaginable grit and gumption in fighting the demons of cultural and regional sensitivities during shoots, as also the conceited custodians of established cinema, both at home and abroad. But he stuck his guns and emerged victorious. Hats off to his courage and conviction that raised the bar for film producers worldwide and proved his unflinching faith in the astounding ability and agility of Satyajit Ray.
Jindal’s book is replete with seemingly little things that tell us a whole lot about Ray and his sole Hindi feature:
Like Saeed Jaffrey was the only actor Ray was keen to cast from the start as Meer Roshan Ali
Like Asrani was one of Ray’s initial choices to play Wajid Ali Shah, so was Madhur Jaffrey as Mirza’s Sajjad Ali’s wife.
Like Amjad Khan was Suresh Jindal’s recommendation, so was Shabana Azmi as Mirza’s wife. This is hugely refective of Jindal's competence in matters of casting; how many would have seen Wajid Ali Shah in Amjad, especially following his 'Sholay' stardom. Jindal was also instrumental in reducing the length of two elongated scenes.
Like Ray wrote a three-page letter apologizing to actor Barry John for the postponement of the filming following Sanjeev kumar’s heart attack and Amjad Khan’s accident. (Wish Barry had extended a small fraction of that courtesy, albeit in a different form, by lowering his exorbitant acting school fees.)
Like the film was plagued with a host of thorny issues – during the making as also at the time of release and even post it, many of which were potential showstoppers, what with distributors backing out and peers and adversaries creating different flavours of nuisance value. It's only a miracle that it got made in the end, and we should thank our stars for it as viewers ahead of critics, journos, analysts and jury members.
Like one of few backers of the film from the Bombay circuit included director Prakash Mehra and mega stars Amitabh Bachchan (who did the narration for free) and Vinod Khanna.
Like Ray ate no fruit, he preferred light meals (this trait rhymes well with his devotion to filmmaking, the fruits of which he hardly relished in material terms.)
Like Ray and Jindal were to make a film with Amitabh Bachchan but the project fell through for reasons beyond the control of both gentlemen.
As Jindal rightly observes, “There were many aspirants for Satyajit Ray’s crown.” Many people including some of his best known peers can’t accept the fact that Ray’s towering profundity and hovering versatility could go neck-deep in all areas of filmmaking (Richard Attenborough splendidly described it in his TV interview during the making of ‘The Chess Players’). Besides, he was a gifted painter, writer, designer, illustrator and composer with an impressive body of work spanning disparate worlds - from children’s literature to adult fiction, from composing music to creating fonts. To top it all, he was a simple man with an austere lifestyle by film fraternity standards. His marked aversion to public platforms obviously offered no scope whatsoever for weaving juicy news bytes linked with his name. For the ‘impoverished specialists’ among our filmmakers, filmgoers, experts and enthusiasts, Ray continues to be a formidable challenge. Precisely why they invariably fall short of the commensurate effort to delve deeper into the subtleties of Ray’s consummate work.
It’s far easier to capture Ray in clichéd adjectives like "Classical" (whatever that means) or simply masquerade as Ray loyalists to appear intellectual. There’s a vast army of Ray colleagues who deem the hypocorism ‘Manikda’ to be a necessary and sufficient evidence of their Ray authority. And then we have a few adventurists who claim absolute knowledge of Ray’s limitations in laughably obscure terms. Like those who claim that Ray was not original and hence was lured by literary revisions. Why don’t they take a closer look at the quality of his adaptations instead? His alterations were invariably born out of a purely cinematic need that he instinctively felt integral to take the story forward on screen. That’s originality at its sublime best.
It’s no surprise then that Ray’s followers commend him, and his detractors condemn him invariably for the wrong reasons. Even in the occasional discord over beliefs and principles, the stance against Ray invariably stands on shaky ground. With the exception of artistes like Utpal Dutt, we don’t have many names who held their own in Hindi movies. And hard as they might try, they can’t blame the formulaic, larger than life Bollywood norm for the dilution. Contrary to popular perception, Ray was appreciative of the redeeming features of Hindi cinema including its factory-like but inventive approach to musical compositions. Ray cast several competent Bombay artistes like Amjad Khan, Sanjeev kumar, Leela Mishra, Farida Jalal, Agha, and David for Shatranj Ke Khilari.
The Benegals, Sens, Gopalakrishnans, Nihalanis and Ghoshes can call their films masterpieces. But the best they can do is to make documentaries on Ray. Among his contemporaries, only the peerless activist director Ritwik Ghatak commanded an equally distinct, though totally different, style of filmmaking.
Coming back to Jindal's book, about fifteen of its pages have been devoted to recounting the turbulence primarily caused by people issues, latent friction that usually erupts at the slightest provocation when people from distant Indian states with markedly different cultures come together under one roof. Peep into the dark recesses of every Indian establishment – whether old economy or new-age, primitive or hi-tech, governmental or private, fading or sunrise, not-for-profit or commercial – and you will find umpteen conflicts rooted in the forced ‘unity in diversity’. In the author’s case, it was a suicidal wining dining meet that caused the mayhem, machinations and mudslinging in a cascading fashion. We can very well imagine the unbearable strain to the producer and director, amid other pressing challenges and blows like the heart attack that Sanjeev Kumar suffered and the near-fatal accident that caused a spate of health issues for Amjad Khan, both events happening in quick succession and upsetting the shoot schedules.
No quarrel with a book being no holds barred, but why should the author be selective about naming the trouble-makers, especially when the episodic conclusion seems to imply that Ray went soft on his crew regulars and hence merits commensurate elaboration. Either one abstains from citing names in toto, or one does the exact opposite – there’s no middle road, at least we believe so. The book explicitly mentions a few names while refers to others as ’ring leaders’. It even lets go the supposed perpetrator of this ugly wrangling, who was Jindal's 'trusted crew member from Bombay’ by his own admission. And there's not much to help us understand what made the author take an extreme step rooted in withdrawal, that too from a project that was initiated at his behest, a project for which Ray had dutifully cast aside the long list of his doubts and apprehensions, all in good faith.
In hindsight, it is always easy to point out the futility of hosting a ‘drinks and dinner’ session for such an unpredictable bunch of guys on either side. Jindal’s gesture, we presume, was an attempt to build a deeper camaraderie at the workplace. He could surely not have anticipated the nuclear explosion of the ‘inebriated bonhomie’.
Frankly, we would have loved to know a little more about the film instead: how Ray developed his screenplay without harming the soul of the Premchand original, how were the principal (and even support) characters conceived and cast, what happened to the elaborate discussions with litterateur Amrit Lal Nagar for roping him in as dialogue writer, how was a typical shoot day when Jindal was on site, how were the interactions between the Bombay stars and the Bengali crew, what was the nasty quote of star actor Shashi kapoor in the India Today magazine, why was Hrishikesh Mukherjee “eager to throw a spanner into the works in the early stages of the production” as Ray reveals in one of his letters, what were the highlights of the growing affinity between Ray and Sanjeev Kumar (which the reader can only second-guess from how Ray’s letters initially refer to him as “Sanjeev” and later by his pet name “Hari”.) Like how Shatranj ke Khiladi needs to be read between the lines, a good part of Jindal’s book also needs to be read between the lines, moving from one letter to another.
The book’s greatest contribution to the world at large is Jindal’s detailed account of how Ray’s Alien script ‘inspired’ Steven Spielberg the way it shouldn’t have, a fact that most Indian directors, producers and stars either dismiss or downplay, blessed as they feel in raving about Spielberg and his clan.
Jindal’s book is surely an odyssey, of the kind Richard Gere has us believe on the blurb, save for a few inconsistencies including the fluctuating quality of Jindal's idiom and humour that needlessly mar this endearing vignette in book form. Rather than a biography of Ray, for which way better resources are available including Andrew Robinson's profound work 'Inner Eye', we would have liked a bio of the author, a prolific individual himself, maybe a chapter devoted to his formative years, of upbringing, education and employment, which could have better housed the candid and pithy accounts of his UCLA student experience in a radically evolving US of the 60s, as also the life and times in vintage Bombay, one known for its (well) organized crime, honourable Mafia, ingenious Aunty’s adds, and democratic Matkas. Amid the main theme, these vivid elaborations seem rather abrupt, if not out of place. And rather than forcibly register extraneous names (like Suresh Malhotra, the author’s best friend who was married to Anjali, sister of Neera, Shyam Benegal’s wife. Phew!), we would have liked to learn more about Padma Shri Pamela Cullen, so also about names like KHM Subramanian who are deprived of footnotes. (Not to talk of the instances where footnotes appear subsequently, not at the first mention of the name.)
Both Jean-Claude Carriere’s foreword and Andrew Robinson’s introduction are apt and purposeful; in fact, Robinson's introduction unfolds the film's essence and significance better than what Jindal elaborates. But Andrew, you seriously think the Hindi potboiler Lagaan is a sophisticated portrayal of the clash of cultures between the British Raj and India? If yes, the law of polarity more than helps us fathom why you should find fault with artist Ram Mohan’s animation work in Shatranj Ke Khiladi, calling the cartoons “brasher than one would like.”