“Today, when everyone is remembering the towering personality who was born 100 years ago, I am tempted to re-live the fifteen minutes he devoted in talking to me – and what I gleaned from that interaction…”
Ratnottama Sengupta relives her memorable 15-minute interview and learning from the legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
This was soon after my marriage in 1979, when I had just moved from Bombay to Calcutta. Those days I was freelancing for Screen, which then had B K Karanjia as its Editor. He asked me to interview Satyajit Ray as The Chess Players had just completed six months run in London. This was cause’ celebre – because Ray’s first Hindi film had received a disastrous reception in Bombay, the home ground of Hindi films. Posters of Shatranj Ke Khilari were torn off, the consortium of distributors whom Suresh Jindal had got finances from, had demanded their money back after a preview. This, despite the fact that the casting was studded with stars like Amjad Ali Khan, Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Shabana Azmi, Farida Jalal, Farooq Sheikh, Victor Banerjee – who were then major attractions at the box office – besides getting Richard Attenborough to play General Outram. The sets were gorgeous, the dance was mesmerizing… And, the film was based on Munshi Premchand’s much loved Hindi classic which so many of us had studied while in school…
In Calcutta of course the film had a better run but it wasn’t as spectacular a reception as, say, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne or Nayak had enjoyed. Those were also ‘firsts’ for Ray – his first children’s film, and his first with Uttam Kumar. But perhaps these were the very reason why those films would create box office records in Bengal. Perhaps a Hindi film couldn’t expect the same measure of success although, following the annexation by the ‘Goras’, the Nawab of Oudh had become the ‘Metiaburujer Nawab’ who brought to Calcutta an entire culture replete with nautch and mujra, biryani and kebab, chandeliers and zardozi .
Shatranj Ke Khilari did not white wash the Brits. Quite the contrary: The East India Company had annexed Oudh on the grounds of ‘maladministration’ and ‘incapacity’, Ray had contested that through his portrayal of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. There was an entire scene where Amjad Ali as the 11th and last ruler of Awadh rebukes his courtiers for letting him down. “Go and ask Queen Victoria, how many of her subjects sing her songs or recite her poems?” And still The Chess Players had a successful run in the Queen’s home ground!
Prior to this, whenever Ray had been asked if he would make a film for an all-India audience, he had politely declined saying, he was not very comfortable making films in a language he was not in command over. His command over Bengali, of course, was an inheritance: his grandfather Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, a writer who illustrated his own stories such as Tuntunir Galpo, had started publishing in 1913 the magazine Sandesh where Ray’s own father Sukumar Ray wrote his nonsense poems – again, self-illustrated – along with stories by his first cousin, Leela Majumdar and his own sisters Sukhalata Rao and Punyalata, among others. However Ray, who studied in the Ballygunge Government High School and was groomed in the arts at Santiniketan, mastered fluency in English while studying Economics in Presidency College. He even wrote his scripts in English.
But Hindi was another story altogether. It was the language in which the Bombay-based industry made films, and this had an all-India presence. Abroad too, it represented ‘Indian Cinema’ – until Ray had come along with Pather Panchali and posted the Indian flag on the map of world cinema. That was in 1955, when all the greats of Bollywood – V Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, K Asif, Nitin Bose, Chetan Anand, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt – were alive and creating waves.
V Shantaram’s Amar Bhoopali had been Nominated in Cannes 1952, and Do Aankhen Barah Haath was Awarded in Berlin 1958 and also won the Samuel Goldwyn Award. Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar was Awarded Cannes 1946. Mehboob Khan’s Mother India was Nominated for Academy Awards 1957. Raj Kapoor’s Jagte Raho was Awarded at Karlovy Vary 1956. Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen was Awarded at Cannes 1953; Biraj Bahu and Sujata were Nominated at Cannes 1954, 1959, respectively; while Bandini was Awarded at Karlovy Vary 1964. Nitin Bose, who introduced playback singing in 1935, had gifted many cult classics including Ganga Jumna in 1957. Likewise K Asif had directed the cult classic Mughal-e-Azam in 1957 while Guru Dutt came up with cult classics Sahib Bibi Ghulam 1962, Kagaz Ke Phool 1959, Pyaasa 1957 one after the other.
They – and many subsequent filmmakers too – had viewers across India hungrily waiting for their releases but when it came to international acclaim it was Ray who took the cake – with almost every single one of the 36 films he made, including shorts and documentaries. Indeed, the record of winning 134 awards out of the 146 nominations is tough to match for any filmmaker. And then, after far reaching negotiations over The Alien with Universal Studios, he was on the verge of making a film in Hollywood! That perhaps was why Bombay did not take very kindly to his foray into ‘Hindi films’.
When producer Suresh Jindal’s Rajnigandha (1974) – directed by Basu Chatterjee – turned a sleeper hit, he garnered courage to approach Ray to direct a film under his production – preferably Hindi; if not, English; else, in Bengali… He expressed his desire to his friend Tinnu Anand, who had joined Ray as his 13th assistant and assisted him through Goopy Gyne Bagha Bayen (1969), Aranyer Din Ratri / Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), Pratidwandi / The Adversary (1971), Seemabaddha / Company Limited (1971) and Ashani Sanket / Distant Thunder (1973) before going on to direct Amitabh Bachchan in his megahits like Kaalia (1981), Shahenshah (1988) and Main Azaad Hoon (1989). Over a trunk call Ray agreed to direct a Hindi film for him – if Jindal agreed to produce Shatranj Ke Khilari.
Jindal writes in The Making of Shatranj Ke Khilari that he was delighted to get this opportunity although he knew this – being a period film – was bound to be a hugely expensive affair. More so, since Ray planned to add to Premchand’s story of the chess players, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali who sacrificed their lives for the kings and queen of the chessboard but not for their own Nawab. Ray changed the poignant ending of the original story, to keep in spirit with the other change he made: In great detail he recounted the Nawab’s side of the story. This, in other words, meant establishing the grandeur of the Nawab’s Oudh, the opulence of his palace, his elaborate costumes and those of every single member of the cast; the dance and music his court was known for; and his city – which implied extensive location shooting in Lucknow…
“But why did you want this emphasis on the nawab?” – I had asked in the course of that interview in his Bishop Lefroy apartment. “The story ends with the two chess players killing each other in a duel. On the screen that would have been too melodramatic,” the celluloid maestro had promptly replied. “But, more importantly, to establish to my viewers why Wajid Ali Shah was the way he was: Self-absorbed; unmindful of royal responsibilities; even ‘eccentric’,” he had explained. “You see, Wajid Ali Shah was a Nawab only in name – because of a nearly hundred-year-old treaty that promised to ‘protect’ the Nawab but effectively turned him into a titular head.”
Awadh was a polity independent of the Mughals – then in decline – governing the fertile lands that buffered the British East India Company’s holdings in Bengal. After they decisively defeated Oudh at the Battle of Buxar in 1764, they sent an agent – termed ‘Resident’ – who was paid for by the Nawab but actually robbed him of his powers over his subjects! Effectively he was turned into a puppet in the hands of the Company. “Wajid Ali Shah did not abdicate. He was deposed on alleged grounds of decadence and misrule. But if I want to establish that it was a mere pretext, I will have to establish that his courtiers had failed him. That they had let him down… And that is why I had to alter the ending.”
Just imagine! He, THE Satyajit Ray, explaining all this in great details to me, a chit of a girl months into journalism then! Yes, because my father was the renowned screen writer Nabendu Ghosh I had grown up with cinema at home – listening to discussions on various aspects of filmmaking, and to gossips too! When my elder brother Subhankar was studying in FTII, I would occasionally sit unobtrusively in some class – and sit under the Bodhi tree while the then chirkuts who’d later become Dadas of the New Cinema tore a classic threadbare. But to scan Shatranj Ke Khilari – with the director?! That not only gave an insight into the trans-creation of a classic – it also gave me an insight into how a director rises to the stature of a master filmmaker. Ray’s need for perfection did not end with convincing the nawab’s descendants living in Metiaburz to lend him their family attires, jewellery and even chandeliers. He had carried out research in the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata and the National Archives and the National Museum in Delhi and in Lucknow – until he could see before his very eyes how the nawab would think and behave.
That morning probably also equipped me to read between the sights and sounds in my subsequent viewing of the masterpiece. Think of how many ways the chessboard has been mounted in the 2-hour film? Vegetables have doubled as king-queen-knight-bishop, in Mirza’s house. In the lawyer’s house the decorative chessboard has two sets of pawns, both ivory white! Then there’s the last scene where the deposed nawab is being led away from his nagari – here the real horses and elephants present a parallel reality to the rooks of the chess players firing at each other in their hideaway.
Then, there is the playful use of the tabla when the lawyer is dying and the chess players are itching to get on with their game: for me, the tabla music here become a metaphor for the two friends – thinking alike, making music together, rather lost when not in the company of the other…
Here, let me also share the other lessons I garnered in the course of that interview. When I had called him up to seek the appointment, he had factually said, “Yes, but you must be here at 7 in the morning – and you will have only 15 minutes.” For anyone other than Ray, the 15 minutes would have meant “a short interview” that would have probably gone on for 45 minutes. Not so with this giant. His loyalty to his watch is perhaps matched only by the owner of the bass voice he used in Shatranj Ke Khilari – Amitabh Bachchan. So sharp at 7 am, when I pressed the doorbell, he opened the door, dressed and ready to receive visitors.
I had carried a tape recorder, which started lapping up the baritone. Five minutes later the phone rang, and Ray answered it. Two minutes later the doorbell rang, and he answered it. Four minutes later the phone again heard him replying to the voice at the other end. When he returned to his chair he reminded me, “We don’t have too much time!” I – or perhaps the young blood coursing in my veins – replied, “Yes, we have spoken for 11 minutes, with two phone calls and one doorbell in between – so we have only 4 minutes now…” But with Ray, every minute counts, I learnt – a lesson that helped me through the rest of my life in journalism. And whatever we had spoken that morning, I reproduced verbatim and Screen had carried it full page.
Timing. Sense of proportion. One’s own point of view – perspective. Above all, the precision with which to communicate every thought. All of this I harvested from that one interaction which had also given me the back story of his next film, Hirak Rajar Deshe / Kingdom of Diamonds (1980). When Ray scripted it, the country had come out of the Emergency and elected a new government into office. Ray had taken on the authoritarianism unleashed between 1975 and 1977 by the then Prime Minister who had once been schooled in the same Santiniketan where Tagore had nurtured liberalism of the arts that Ray was raised in. Garbed as a children’s film, much like the prequel Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Hirak Rajar Deshe was an indictment of Indira Gandhi’s ham-handed rule that had fragmented Democracy.
Here Goopy and Bagha, bored by the contented life of their palaces, decide to don their magic shoes once more. This time they land in the kingdom of Hirak Raja – the self-obsessed king who believes education is dangerous because knowledge is a threat. He shuts down schools and burns books and devises machines to brainwash dissidents with royal propaganda. He consults an astrologer to unveil a giant statue of himself. He orders the removal of all signs of poverty when he invites royal guests. “You need conviction to make a film like that,” Soumitra Chatterjee had later said of his mentor, pointing out how this was a take-off from lived political reality.
On looking back on those 15 minutes of learning, I realize that Ray was unjustly charged of NOT making political statements. On the contrary, he repeatedly used the garb of fantasy to make pithy and universal comments about war, sycophancy, authoritarianism – and about the ruled not sharing the responsibility of governance. Shatranj Ke Khilari, in the making even before the country was to come out of the Emergency, had squarely blamed the courtiers for not doing their bit towards the governance of their land. He had already made Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, which everyone recognizes as a comment against war. Not much ink has been spent, though, on the fact that the director chose to make this film soon after the Indo-Pak war of 1965 which had pitted the ‘twin’ states born on 14/ 15 August 1947. Look carefully and you will see the allusions: Halla Raja’s costumes, the salwars and topis all take off from the Marjina-Abdulla of Ali Baba and others who people Arabian Nights, while the Shundi family is dressed after the lot in Raj Kahini.
Even earlier, in 1964, Ray had made the black and white short, Two: A Film Fable. It was made as part of a trilogy of shorts from Bombay and Calcutta – one of which featured sitarist Ravi Shankar, another on a ballet troupe. Ray’s film shunned dialogue to play, instead, not with silence but with sound – of flute, trumpet, drums; of guns, and mechanical toys – as a rich kid involves in a game of one-upmanship with a slum kid he watches from his window. Made when the Vietnam war was on, it is easy to see parallels as the rich kid makes loud noises on his trumpet, wears masks of Mickey Mouse and Native Americans and cowboys, brandishes sword and uses an air gun to shoot down the kite of the poor kid who was playing with a flute, a bow and arrow, a home-made mask…
Clearly, using the format of a children’s tale came easily to Ray when he wanted to caution one and all about the pitfalls of keeping silent against tyranny.
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