The making of Shatranj

Filmmaker Suresh Jindal, in his latest novel, recounts his good fortune of making Shatranj ke Khilari with the stalwart Satyajit Ray, Gargi Gupta reports

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The making of Shatranj
Clockwise: Ray with Farooq Sheikh and Farida Jalal; Suresh Jindal’s My Adventures with Ray; with Ray


When Suresh Jindal met Satyajit Ray for the first time, he was a relative greenhorn in cinema, having produced just one film – Rajnigandha, the Amol Palekar-Vidya Sinha hit of 1974. Ray then was at the peak of his career, a veteran of 20-odd films, among them such acclaimed classics as Pather Panchali and Charulata.

Jindal, whose interest in cinema had been kindled while studying engineering in the US by the films of Ray and other master directors, had spoken to Tinnu Anand about a desire to work with Ray on a Hindi film. This was wishful thinking since Ray had already turned down such proposals from industry stalwarts Tarachand Barjatya, Raj Kapoor and SS Vasan. But Anand, known for his roles in Agneepath and Pushpak and as the director of Shahenshah, begun his career as an assistant director to Ray and knew him well. Surprisingly, Ray didn't reject the idea and so began work on 'Shantranj Ke Khilari', based on a story by Premchand.

It was an unlikely pairing. As Jindal writes in 'My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The making of Shantranj Ke Khilari', due to release early next month on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the film's release: "I was still a few months shy of my thirty-third birthday; he was fifty-seven years old. I was 5'6" tall and he was 6'2", a veritable giant by Indian standards. I was from a well-to-do, non-intellectual, conservative, vegetarian Jain–Bania family from Punjab...Whereas Ray was from a distinguished family of Bengal...that was aristocratic, highly accomplished both academically and artistically and progressive..." and so on.

Shantranj Ke Khilari is set in 1856, Lucknow, the capital of Awadh province, just before it was annexed by the British. But that's the backdrop; the main narrative is about two jagirdars so obsessive about chess that nothing – the displeasure of their wives or political upheavals – can deter them from playing. The film marked a first in Ray's career – it was the first time that he cast Bombay stars like Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan, and Shabana Azmi.

Shatranj... wasn't an easy production, taking about three years to hit the theatres from the day Jindal first met Ray. The delays were caused by Ray's painstaking research into the time and the life of Awadh's colourful and tragic Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Then his lecturing at universities and appearing at film festivals; Ray also made a Bengali film, Jana Aranya, in the interrim. Then a slew of illnesses delayed the shooting – Sanjeev Kumar's heart attack, Amjad Khan's airplane accident, and Jindal laid up in hospital of a liver abcess. Also, Ray's band of technicians accused Jindal of under-paying them. For a while, there was animosity between the producer and the director. After the film was made, the four distributors who had agreed to buy the film, backed out. For a year, Shatranj ke Khilari did not get a commercial release.

'My Adventures with Satyajit Ray' is structured around the many letters that Ray and Jindal exchanged during this long period. These offer a detailed account of such ups and downs and a peep into the creative mind of one of the greatest directors of all time. The tone, despite all the reversals, is cordial and warm. Even anger is expressed with grace and moderation. For instance, here is Ray expressing his disappointment with Jindal after a particularly ugly showdown between Jindal and the technicians - "No one is sorrier than I am that matters had to come to a point where a showdown was inevitable. One advantage, I think, is we know each other a little better now. I have never for a moment doubted your respect and admiration for me. If you had shown a fraction of that feeling towards the members of my team, there would be no problems and no cause for me to complain."

Asked why he chose to dig up something that must have been painful at the time, Jindal is philosophical - "It was there in the letters. Besides, we got over it. We were to have made another film based on Masweta Devi's Beej, but he had the bypass surgery and the doctors wouldn't allow him to go out of Calcutta on outdoor shoots." Indeed, throughout the book Jindal emphasizes how much he admired and learnt from Ray, and not just about films.

Looking back, Jindal feels that Ray was "very hurt" by the distributors' backing out. He dismisses rumours afloat at the time that it was a conspiracy by mainstream Hindi filmmakers to prevent Ray from making a dent in their territory, saying they were "just hardcore businessmen who felt that the film was not going to do well and they would loose their money". And that, Jindal feels, was what hurt Ray – their impression that he was not viable.

"He was a master. He was not like the new wave directors who had the attitude that we are artists, and we don't care whether they audience likes our films or not. Ray always cared. He understood that to stay in the game, you have to ensure that the producers get a return. Only then could he go to them again. He always said, 'Suresh, I know my films are niche. But I have an audience because I make it with so little money.' I would put him up at the Taj, and he'd say, 'Why are you wasting money? I'll stay at the Shalimar'." A lesson here for our filmmakers of today.

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