The ‘magical mystery tour’ that was Satyajit Ray’s ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’

The film’s producer Suresh Jindal rewinds to his experiences of working with the Bengali master on his first Urdu language feature.

Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) is based on Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same name and is set in 1856. As two nobleman (Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar) devote themselves to chess, the British proceed to annex the kindgom of Awadh and oust its ruler Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan). My Adventures with Satyajit Ray The Making of Shatranj Ke Khilari is based on producer Suresh Jindal’s memories of working with the celebrated Indian filmmaker on his first non-Bengali feature. The book includes the letters that flew back and forth between director and producer, production stills, and numerous anecdotes about Ray’s filmmaking process.

As I was beginning to find out, Ray was a tireless and outstanding researcher. His capacity and love for it was prodigious. His mind was like a steel trap, focused only on the subject at hand. Every available space in his study was now piled high with books on chess, James Outram’s Blue Books from the National Library, books and reproductions of Company School paintings, the Daniells and other master printmakers and painters of Indian landscapes and architecture, miscellaneous travelogues and every other possible kind of information on the ambience, food, clothing, mannerisms, music, etc. of the period in which the story was set.

We also went to museums, the havelis of aristocratic Lucknawis and the thakur baris of north Calcutta. From the Imperial War Museum and the India Office Library to the Falaknuma Palace of the nizams of Hyderabad and the City Palace Museum in Jaipur—it was like researching the period for a PhD. One evening we would be having dinner with the Rajmata of Jaipur and the next morning searching for an expert on the Shia namaz in the winding alleys of old Lucknow. It was like a magical mystery tour: psychedelic all the way, in every way.

Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar in Shatranj Ke Khilari. Image credit: Suresh Jindal.
Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar in Shatranj Ke Khilari. Image credit: Suresh Jindal.

Everywhere we went people were awed by Ray’s talent and fame. When we finally managed to coordinate our schedules and reach Amritlal Nagar’s house in Lucknow, the aged writer welcomed us with delight and these words: ‘This is the happiest day for this small house of mine. I feel deeply respected and obliged by your visit.’ As always, Manik-da shied away from the praise, never quite able to decide what to do on these occasions.

Nagar-ji showed us around his haveli where it is believed Wajid Ali Shah spent his last evening. He also showed us his research room, which resembled an intellectual’s den from the Middle Ages. Of particular interest was a raised platform covered by a green sheet on which sat his low Indian-style desk where he had composed and written many great novels. During the visit, Ray and Nagar discussed Premchand and Shatranj Ke Khilari, Wajid Ali Shah, the costumes and fashion of the period, as well as the manner of life and social relationships in nineteenth-century Lucknow. Nagar-ji showed us his paintings, prints, photos and an original brick from Ayodhya’s famed Laxman ka Teela. He bowed his head and prayed in front of photographs of Premchand and Saratchandra Chatterjee, telling us that they were his gurus.

Ray’s instinct for honing an actor’s performance was unerring. He appreciated even the smallest of roles played well. I remember once, after a screening of a newly released Hollywood film, Network, he turned to me and said: ‘That’s a marvellous actress. Outstanding.’ ‘Yes sir, Faye Dunaway was really good,’ I replied, stating the obvious. ‘No, no. That’s not who I meant. The actress who played the wife of William Holden. She was outstanding. Very good work.’

That year, Beatrice Straight, the British stage actress he had pointed out—unknown in Hollywood—went on to surprise the film world by winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, along with Faye Dunaway’s much-expected win for Best Actress. Straight was on screen for just five minutes and forty seconds—the shortest performance ever to win an Academy Award for acting.

Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar in Shatranj Ke Khilari. Image credit: Suresh Jindal.
Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar in Shatranj Ke Khilari. Image credit: Suresh Jindal.

When I asked him, ‘Manik-da, how do you cast? I mean, what are the most important things you look for in an actor?’ his instant reply was, ‘The eyes, Suresh … and the walk. These are what tell us most about ourselves.’ Like almost everyone else, actors adored him. Any advice he gave on acting, or how to do anything at all, was always spot on. When I told Shabana Azmi, a gifted actress with several memorable films to her credit, that her role in Shatranj Ke Khilari would be limited to two or three scenes, she replied: ‘Suresh, if Ray wants me to hold a jhadu for one shot only, I will gladly do it. Work with Ray? Wow!’

In turn, Ray’s respect for actors and their time was equally well known. When filming was postponed for eight months because of Sanjeev Kumar’s heart attack and Amjad Khan’s near-fatal accident, he wrote actor Barry John a three-page letter, explaining and apologizing for the postponement. Barry had only one scene in the film! Barry was so touched by this courtesy he never tired of mentioning it to his friends for years.

By the summer of 1976 we were making headway both in the screenplay and in the casting. Manik-da and I shared equal responsibility in the casting process, although, as with everything on his films, he had the final say. As I recall, the only actor he was keen to cast from the start was Saeed Jaffrey. After reading the original story, it was Saeed whom he had envisioned for the role of Meer Roshan Ali, one of the chess-playing noblemen. Of course, we were aware of Indian cinema’s acting pool, and, as is done everywhere, we too went in for typecasting. We were familiar with Sanjeev Kumar’s work and looks, and he seemed right for Mirza Sajjad Ali, the other nobleman.

Amjad Khan, who generally played the villain after his star-making turn in Sholay, was my suggestion for the role of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah since he was a major boxoffice draw and because he was a Muslim himself. If one looks at Wajid Ali Shah’s portrait, one can see an uncanny resemblance between the two. Ray had his reservations about Amjad being able to rid himself of his typecasting as a villain and play a gentle soul, but Khan rendered an excellent portrayal. As for the prime minister to the nawab (Ali Naqi), acclaimed Calcutta theatre actor Victor Banerjee was Ray’s choice, probably because he looked almost exactly like the prime minister, whose portrait hangs in the Hussainabad Picture Gallery Museum in Lucknow.

Satyajit Ray on the sets of Shatranj Ke Khilari. Image credit: Suresh Jindal.
Satyajit Ray on the sets of Shatranj Ke Khilari. Image credit: Suresh Jindal.

After eliminating a few actors and hitting upon the idea that Richard Attenborough, a well-known and highly respected actor knighted by the Queen, would be perfect for the role of Outram, we decided to go to London in the fall of 1976 to meet him, and also to research the costumes of the period at the India Office Library and the Imperial War Museum. We met Richard at the Gaylord Restaurant in Mayfair. Ray and Richard already knew each other from film festivals, and the latter had previously expressed a desire to work with Ray. Richard was at the time editing A Bridge Too Far, and it was only due to his enormous respect for Ray that he spared time for us. Perhaps a bit embarrassed to ask such an illustrious actor to play a small role, Manik-da made the offer but added: ‘This is not a big role, Richard, but as far as I am concerned you are the only one who can do it.’ To which Attenborough immediately replied: ‘Satyajit, I would be happy to recite even the telephone directory for you!’

For the costumes referred to in these letters, the attire of the period was thoroughly researched by Ray, and then Andrew Mollo was hired to draw the sketches for the costumes. Andrew is the younger brother of John Mollo, two-time Oscar winner for costume design in Star Wars and Gandhi.

From a long career of low-budget art films, Ray had learnt to make do with very few takes. Generally, every scene was well thought-out and ready to shoot with almost no rehearsal, so that the spontaneity would lend more realism. Shatranj Ke Khilari’s cast of professional actors required very few takes anyway. Moreover, Ray had written to each actor ahead of time, explaining the role and how he envisioned it. During the shoot, he outlined the scene, along with the preceding and following ones. When necessary, he would enact the part for a child or a cast member with limited experience. He controlled the rhythm and tenor of the dialogues, which brought out the best in each actor. And even though all decisions were made by him, he kept his ego out of the process; if someone came up with a better suggestion, he was open to it (although it was difficult to come up with something better than what he had already thought of).

Amjad Khan in Shatranj Ke Khilari. Image credit: Suresh Jindal.
Amjad Khan in Shatranj Ke Khilari. Image credit: Suresh Jindal.

Manik-da was always flexible about letting actors add their own touch to a scene. While researching his part as General Outram, Richard Attenborough found that the man smoked cheroots and wore a pince-nez. He thus not only began practising a Scottish accent but also brought the props with him. On arriving at Calcutta airport, he shared these details with Ray at the baggage claim, but quickly added, ‘Satyajit, you are the director, and I will do whatever you want.’ Ray’s immediate response was that if that were the research he would gladly go along with it. Richard was incredibly pleased at being allowed to bring a depth to his role that he had discovered himself. And when Saeed Jaffrey wanted to deliver certain dialogues in a particular way, knowing that Saeed knew Urdu better than himself, Ray let him.

Excerpted with permission from My Adventures with Satyajit Ray The Making of Shatranj Ke Khilari, Suresh Jindal, HarperCollins India.

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