In the maze of Indian cinema, Satyajit Ray shone clear and vibrant. He dealt with issues and subjects with rare finesse, granted space to even ordinary actors, and gave filmmaking an exalted stature. For Ray, a filmmaker who commanded global audience and attention, story-telling was an art he had come to master. True, the Apu trilogy placed him the category of legends, his overall work was a tribute to his vocation. You could revisit his movies and reaffirm your faith in this master craftsman. “Pather Panchali” may have portrayed poverty but it was rich in content. It grows on you, just as the iconic “The Bicycle Thief” by Vittorio De Sica.
“Shatranj Ke Khilari”, based on a short story by Munshi Premchand, was an event to celebrate for Hindi cinema. One master had chosen from another field to weave a delightful rendering, one that captured the times of British advent in India even though Ray adds a few characters to Premchand’s tale of misplaced passion among two feudal lords of Awadh. The cast was assembled astutely but Ray it was all the way, his stamp so unmistakable, in the dialogue, direction and screenplay. Well versed with these aspects of filmmaking and it was to Ray’s credit that he managed it in a medium, Hindi, he was not familiar with.
The obsession of Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) with chess, even as the world around them crumbles, dominates the movie. Slow paced but gripping, the movie brings forth the sweetness of Urdu, so brilliantly captured by Shama Zaidi and Javed Siddiqi in association with Ray, who penned the English dialogues. As perfect as the English would. It was beautifully delivered by Richard Attenborough, in the role of General James Outram, and Tom Alter as Captain Weston. One of the highpoints is the long scene depicting these two in an engrossed conversation with the General probing the Captain on the lifestyle of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Lucknow.
There are silent moments in the movie that speak so loudly through the characters. There is room for Shabana Azmi and Victor Banerjee to flourish in their cameo performances. Ray’s methods do not differ from any of his earlier works. The camera captures the eloquence of the actors without exception as the director holds the whip right through. How could he not have won accolades for his show! It was profound as always and the Filmfare Best Director honour was an addition to the massive collection on his mantelpiece. The public response to the movie was not overwhelming but the critics were profuse in their praise.
The movie is set in times of Shah, the king who was more a poet than a ruler, busy flying kites, frolicking, self-indulgent. His decadent ways invite ridicule from the British who move in craftily to usurp his rights and reduce him to a mere mortal. Amjad Ali Khan, basking in his Gabbar Singh glory post “Sholay” success, is a wonderful choice to play Shah. He portrays the character of an opulent ruler to the full with Ray’s detail to the era a highlight when Awadh survived not through confronting the British but acquiescing to the latter’s demands.
Jaffery is a huge influence on the movie’s progress with his impeccable Urdu and a compelling presence as he plays Sanjeev Kumar’s chess opponent. Jaffery, with a mere twinkle of his eyes, could convey the world and this was a role that evoked a commanding display of his skills. He was Mir Roshan Ali as you would expect a nawab to be, dismissive of his subjects and surroundings as he pursues his only love in life, the beguiling affliction to chess.
Sajjad Ali and Roshan Ali neglect their personal life in their addiction to chess to the extent that the game dominates thoughts during a lovemaking scene involving the former. There is a canny connection between the British, ever scheming to ensnare the Indian kings and subjects, and the two chess-obsessed nawabs, plotting moves to conquer the opposite, ever alert to the other moving the pieces unfairly. Both are guilty on this count, a mirror to their passion to win the battle of 64 black and white squares. Symbolically the two nawabs adopt the new format of the game where the Queen replaces the all-compassing Prime Minister as British troops are marching in to annex Awadh.
From the time it opens to a brilliant commentary by Amitabh Bachchan and closes to the two nawabs settling down to another round of chess, the movie grows into an evergreen classic only a Ray could have conceptualized and delivered.
Genre: Historical drama
Director and screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffery, Shabana Azmi, Farida Jalal, Amjad Khan, David Abraham, Richard Attenborough, Victor Banerjee, Farooq Shaikh, Tom Alter, Leela Mishra
Story: Munshi Premchand’s short story Shatranj Ke Khilari
Dialogue: Satyajit Ray, Shama Zaidi and Javed Siddiqi.
Music director: Satyajit Ray.
Lyricist: Birju Maharaj, Reba Muhuri
Box office status: Average
Trivia: Selected as Indian entry for the Best Foreign Language at the 51st Academy Awards but was not accepted as a nominee. Won 1978 Filmfare Award for Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Saeed Jaffery). Also nominated for Golden Bear for Best Film Award