'Sir, I would like you to make a film in Hindi because I am in the Hindi film industry, or in English, or if not, then in Bengali'. When Suresh Jindal said these words to Satyajit Ray in 1974, he was a rookie producer with single film –albeit the sleeper hit of the year, Rajnigandha – to his credit. Ray was an icon, among the greatest film-makers in the world. Yet, Ray responded: 'Actually, I have been thinking of doing a film in Hindi', thus paving the way for a remarkable adventure. Shatranj Ke Khilari is Satyajit Ray's only full length feature film in Hindi/Urdu and his most expensive film. A period piece set in nineteenth –century Lucknow, it employed lavish set designs and stars of both Hindi and Hollywood cinema.
Quoting extensively from Ray's fascinating unpublished letters to Jindal, this book evokes the passion, historical research and trademark devotion to detail that Ray brought to every aspect of film production, as also the many epihanies and pitfails that accompany all creative collaborations. Coinciding with the fourteenth anniversary of the film's release. My Adventures with Satyajit Ray is a fitting & tribute to a classic of Indian cinema and its immortal maker.
I heard about Satyajit Ray for the first time from Luis Bunnel. He had seen Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955) at Cannes and told me: 'You must see this film, and see it several times [he did insist]. The director is great one.'
I saw Pather Panchali, and I saw it several times, following Bunnel's instructions. Then I Watched Ray's other films, one by one, and loved all of them. Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958) is among my all –time favourites. I have seen it six or seven times (and I'll see it again and again).
I was lucky enough to meet Satyajit in Calcutta in 1982. I was travelling through India with Peter Brook, looking for any help, any indication or suggestion that could come to out rescue, for we were working on stage adaption of The Mahabharta.
Satyajit was nice enough to receive us in his office several times and give us priceless advice. He even told us that for a long time he had himself dreamed of making a film based on the great Indian epic. But the project would have been expensive and would have to be shot in English, preferably with American actors. 'I gave up, because I couldn't imagine Kirk Dougles Playing Arjuna, Ray said with a smile.
We met again several times in Calcutta in following years. I remember sitting next to him during the screening of one his last films, Shakha Proshakha (Branches of the Tree, 1990). As always, I felt his strong presence. When I watched his unforgettable last declaration the day he received the Academy's Honorary Award for Lifetime Acheivement on television in Paris, tears welled up in my eyes. I knew I would never see him again. A great artist, and a great man, was leaving us. And he was aware of it. When it comes to Suresh, it's strange, but I don't remember when I first met him; I just know that we are friends. We met several times in India, maybe thirty years ago, but also in Paris and –strangely enough –in Mexico. We had long conversations, and together we even cautiously explored the jungle near Palenque in the Maya country. Suresh kept pretentding that his light Indian Sandals were the best possible shoes for walking in an unexplored forest, which, to this day, I doubt.
One day he sent me the manuscript of this book, containing the letters exchanged between Satyajit Ray and himself regarding the movied he had produced, Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players, 1977), Which is set in Lucknow in the nineteenth century, precisely in 1856. And i was seduced at once, because i had never read anything like it before: the story of the making of a film, step from beginning to end. The realtions between a film director and a producer are usually sometimes be treacherous, even violent. And they remain a mystery to the crew and, consequently, to the audience. While reading Suresh's book (and looking at the picture and documents it contains), we discover what's generally hidden. It's like walking into an adventure novel, where you penetrate another jungle full of delusions and dangers, but with the best possible guides. I guess even if we don't belong to the world of cinema (and we don't belong to the world of cinema (and we don't need to in order to enjoy this book), we partake of the desire, the worries, the hesitations, the difficulties and also the joys these two men faced along the way in making a great film.
A legend (Suresh regards Ray as 'a magnification human specimen', a towering personality') is coming to visit us, to share his dreams with us, as if were us, as if we were part of his team; I would even say, as part of his family.
And it's impossible not to open the door and let him in.
Shatranj Ke Khilari (This Chess Players), complete in 1977, was the first adult film about the British Raj in India, Today, after Gandhi, Heat and Dust, The Jewel in the Crown, A Passage to India, Lagaan and many other fims, Satyajit Ray's film remains by far the most sophisticated portrayal of this particular clash of cultures. No other director –British, Indian or otherwise –is likely to better it. As V.S. Nagpal remarked, 'It is like Shakespeer scene. Only 300 words are spoken but goodness! –hut terrific things happen?
Ray had known Premchand's short story 'Shatranj Ke Khilari' for more than thirty years before he attempted to make a screenplay out of it, after meeting the young producer Suresh Jindal in 1974. Although it had first appeared in print in Hindi in the mid -1920s, Ray read it in English translation in the early 1940s an art student at Rabindernath Tagore's university in Bengal and was immediately drawn to it for Several reasons.
Lucknow, the setting of the story, is one of the most resonant cities in India. Satyajit took holidays there in the late 1920s, and 1930s from the age of about eight, staying at first in the house of an uncle, later with other relatives. The uncle, a barrister called Atulprasad Sen, was the most famous Bengali composer of songs after Tagore. His house hummed with music of every kind, and his guests displayed polished manners to match; they included the greatest north Indian classical musician of modern times, Ustad Allauddin Khan (the father of Ali Akbar Khan and the guru of Ravi Shankar). The young Ray listened to him playing the piano and violin, and Ray listened to him playing the piano and violin, and took in the atmosphere of courtly refinement that was so characterstic of Lucknow known as the 'Paris of the East' and the 'Babylon of India' a century before: the great mosque Bara Imambara with its notorious Bhulbhulaiya Maze, the Dikusha Garden and the remains of the place of the Kings of Awadh (Oudh). Near he saw the shell of the British Residency, with the marks of cannonballs still visible on its walls and a marble plaque commemorating the spot where Sir Henry Lawrence had fallen during the Indian Mutiny/Uprising of 1857. Even today these places have a peculiar elegiac aura. The brief allusions to the city and that period in its history in Premchand's story conjured up a host of images and sensations in the twenty –years –old Ray's mind.
By then he was also keenly interested in chess. Over the next ten years or so this became an addiction –the main bond (along with Western classical music) between him and his first English friend, Norman Clare, an RAF serviceman with time on his hands in Calcutta in 1944-1946. After this friend was demobbed, Ray found himself without a partner and took to playing solitare chess. Over the next few years he became engrossed in it and bought books on chess, which he would soon decide to sell raise money to shoot the pilot footage for his first film, Pather Panchali. His passion: film –making.
That came around 1951, after his return to Calcutta from his first visit to Britain. Nearly a quarterly of a century passed before Ray tackled the story he had admired as a student. His reluctance was principally due to his doubts about writing a screenplay and working with actors in language –Urdu, the court language of Lucknow (which is very similar to Hindi, the language of Premchand's story) –that was not his own. So rich, subtle and lifelike is Ray's usual film dialogue –as Naipaul appreciated from just the portions of The Chess Players in English –so nuanced his direction of actors that he feared to work in a language other than Bengali or perhaps English. It was his affection for the story, his discovery of able Urdu collaborators and his awareness of a pool of talented Urdu –speaking actors in Bombay (rather than his usual Calcutta) which eventually gave him confidence. For the first time –excepting his science –fiction priject, the Alien, and his documentaries –Ray wrote a screenplay in English, which was subsequently translated into Urdu. During production, he spoke English to his producer Jindal, the actors and his Urdu collaborators. Although his Hindi was serviceable, Ray characteristically avoided speaking in Hindi. 'He doesn't like to do anything unless he's really good at it,' Shama Zaidi, his cheif collaborator in the writing of the screenplay, remarked.
Her role in the film began early on, about two years before Ray completed the first draft of the screenplay in June 1976. Ray's art directors Bansi Chandragupta introduced Zaidi to Ray in 1974. He was just beginning to get grips with his research for the film –which makes it one of the longest pre –production periods of any Ray film (during which he made another film, Jana Aranya [The Middle Man]). It is not hard to see why: not only had Ray taken on the re –creation of an culture that was not his own, he was also having to confront his own ambievalence towards the British Raj and, in particular, the contradictions of King Wajid Ali Shah, one of the most bizarre monarchs in a land of eccentric rulers.
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