‘There was always a huge calm on the set’

This year marks 40 years of Satyajit Ray’s first Hindi film, Shatranj Ke Khilari, the tale of two chess-obsessed friends set in the backdrop of British annexation of Awadh. The film’s producer Suresh Jindal relives the making of the film in an exclusive interview

Published - August 14, 2017 08:16 pm IST

In the 1960s Suresh Jindal was an engineering student at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where he discovered world cinema, including early works of Satyajit Ray. After he returned to India, Jindal worked as an engineer and then entered film production, with Basu Chatterjee’s charming comedy Rajnigandha (1974).

He struggled for two years to get the film released. One potential distributor also offered money for the film to be reshot with a different lead actor. Eventually the success of Rajnigandha led Jindal to take on his most ambitious project – producing Satyajit Raj’s first Hindi film – Shatranj Ke Khilari – based on a short story by Munshi Premchand. Set on the eve of the Indian rebellion of 1857 it showed to parallel realities unfolding simultaneously—two noblemen obsessed with chess even as the British are about to annex Awadh.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Shatranj … Jindal’s book on the making of the film will be released later in the year. Aseem Chhabra met Jindal at his Delhi home to talk about working in the movies…

I read that you met up with Tinnu Anand because you knew he had been Satyajit Ray’s assistant director?

After Rajnigandha became an unexpected hit, I talked to Tinnu whose family was my foster family in Bombay. I had an intuition that Ray was ready to make a film in Hindi and Tinnu agreed. So we decided to call him. After we spoke, Ray invited us to come and see him.

Had he already identified Shatranj Ke Khilari as the project?

He had read an anthology of Premchand’s stories. So he wanted to do it. It’s not like I suggested the idea to him. But he said he had one condition. ‘If we don’t make the film, please don’t tell anybody.’

Was that because he didn’t want anyone else to get the idea?

No, he just wanted to keep it under wraps. He asked me to buy that collection of Premchand’s stories from a bookstore near Chowringhee.

the success of Rajnigandha led Jindal to take on his most ambitious project – producing Satyajit Raj’s first Hindi film – Shatranj Ke Khilari

the success of Rajnigandha led Jindal to take on his most ambitious project – producing Satyajit Raj’s first Hindi film – Shatranj Ke Khilari

I believe Ray and Saeed Jaffrey once met at an airport. And Ray promised to cast Jaffrey in his first Hindi film.

They had met at the Beirut airport. Ray told me he was open to the rest of the cast, but Saeed Jaffrey must be in the film.

How much of the rest of the cast was his idea?

It was a mutual thing. He had some people in mind and so did I.

There is a story in Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary, Celluloid Man about P.K. Nair that Sanjeev Kumar had never seen any Ray films. He rented an apartment near National Film Archive and watched all of his films.

Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan were huge stars, especially after Sholay . Sanjeev was notorious for coming late. I told him I had heard ‘ ki aap aram se set par aate hain . That I will not allow, only for the respect for the great man. Also he was not used to it.’ So the car would be there to pick up Sanjeev at 8.45 a.m., but he would be in the hotel lobby at 8.30 a.m.

But the film almost didn’t get made. Sanjeev had a heart attack and Amjad had a near fatal road accident.

So many brilliant actors took small roles in the film, including Shabana Azmi. Ray loved Shabana and wrote about her in his book Our Films, Their Films.

Yes, she was there only in a couple of scenes. I told Shabana it was a small role. Her response was ‘ Ray Sahib ke liye toh mein jharoo marne ke liye tayaar hoon.

Bijoya Ray wrote in her book Manik and I that Ray asked for very little money as his fee. She and Bansi Chandragupta were upset because he could have asked for more for a Hindi film.

I don’t want to get into that. I gave him whatever he asked for and I was willing to give him twice the money.

Did you make the budget?

The budget was about Rs 40 lakhs. It was mainly for the sets and costumes. I didn’t know budgeting at that time. I learned budgeting on Gandhi (his next project after Shatranj ). Sanjeev and Amjad were at the top of the heap. Then we had Lord Attenborough. Other than that the march of the soldiers in the end was a very expensive scene. I went to see Andrew Mollo in London who was an expert on British army costumes. Andrew sketched out the British officer’s clothes. Then we went to Berman’s and Nathan’s – the biggest warehouse of costumes in the world. That is where Richard’s (Attenborough) and the main officer’s costumes came from. The others we had stitched based on Andrew’s sketches.

And Shama Zaidi designed the Indian costumes? Mrs. Ray wrote in her book that someone had lent their jamawar shawls.

Yes and Ali Sardar Jafri’s sisters – Rabab and Sitara – stitched those costumes. We got the shawls from old Bengali zamindari families in Calcutta. People just opened their hearts for Ray. We went to the Salar Jung Museum and everything was open for a Satyajit Ray film. The same at the Lucknow and Delhi museums. It was clear that everyone valued a great artist.

The pistol used at the end of the film was found in a police academy near Ray’s home in Calcutta. We had searched everywhere. I even had art dealers looking for it in Jaipur. We met Maharani Gayatri Devi to borrow the arms from the Jaipur family.

The shooting was all done in Calcutta?

All the studio shoot was done in Calcutta. The outdoors shoot of the cockfight, kite flying scenes and when they play chess – that was done in Lucknow.

Did Ray write the script and dialogues in Bengali or English?

He wrote in English. Shama [Zaidi] did the transliteration and then she had Javed Siddiqui write in Urdu.

How much Hindi could Ray speak?

Not much, but he could understand most of it.

He gave his directions in English?

Yes, he would give instructions in English. Javed Siddiqui was the dialogue coach. He was from a Lucknow family.

What was Ray like on the set?

He was very calm and cool.

He never got angry and frustrated?

No, never. And his lunch was just a sandwich, then a sandesh and a sada paan. In Bengali I would hear his normal irritation, but he was never angry. There was always a huge calm on the set. You didn’t feel like creating any chaos on the set. He had a little drama after each shot. He would say ‘Rai’ calling Soumendu Roy (the cinematographer), then would yell out ‘lighting okay?’ Finally he would turn to the actors ‘Please do one more take for me.’ The actors would become putty in his hands.

But you had problems with the distributors.

I had raised money from the distributors in Bombay and Delhi during the production. Had they released the film when it was made, it would have made its money back. But I was obliged to show it. When they saw it they refused to release the film and asked for the money to be refunded. I took all the burden on myself. If the distributors didn’t earn enough money, they would recover it from me.

The film did travel abroad.

It went to the Berlin film festival and was in competition, but the subtitling was slightly off. We lost by one vote. It was also India’s official entry for the Oscars.

Was Ray happy with the film?

Yes, he was. He would call me often asking how I was doing, if the money was okay. But I had debts to pay. My phone got cut off four times, during the making of Shatranj Ke Khilari . I took them to court. I said how will I make my money if I have no means of communication? The judge was a fan of Rajnigandha and he ruled in my favor.

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