i was seventeen when shatranj ke khiladi was released. it was satyajit ray’s first film in any language other than bengali, it had hindi film stars acting in it, even european actors, amitabh bachchan was the narrator. and the man who had played gabbar singh just two years before in the blockbuster superhit film sholay, was the legendary poet king of awadh: singer, dancer, thumri composer, who even dressed up as krishna and frolicked with his kathak dancing gopis. amjad khan as wajid ali shah…

“sirf mausiqui aur shayari hi mard ke aankhon mein aansoo la sakte hain.”

music and poetry alone can bring tears to a man’s eyes.


only satyajit ray could have thought of that casting. i read here (lovely piece by andrew robinson) that ray really struggled with the idea of making a film on someone like wajid ali shah. he found it hard to take to the last independently ruling nawab in india. when shama zaidi, with whom the director was collaborating, said she could translate wajid ali shah’s autobiography for him where he describes among other things, his sexual exploits from the age of eight, satyajit ray declined the offer. he didn’t wish to dislike the king more than he perhaps already did. he searched assiduously for something in wajid ali that he could feel positively about. finally, he decided to see him as an artist, his love for and patronage of music as his “redeeming” trait.

the film, based on munshi premchand’s short story by the same name, is of course not about wajid ali shah alone. it is set in an intricate moment in history, the 1856 annexation of awadh. it also tells the tale of two colourful chess players who do all they can not to be part of it. but it really was about what the auteur director saw and felt and surmised in that moment. or so it seemed to me.

i did not see shatranj back then, somehow i didn’t want to. till the other evening, when i suddenly felt like watching it…

i searched youtube, and there was an upload, though not in high resolution, not even very clear. but it was fine with me. movies were not designed to be seen on a computer that too on the small youtube screen perhaps, but there is such a feeling of freedom and intimacy in this format. it was just me and the film that evening.

when a master makes a film, i think it just talks differently. sometimes it seeps into you, touching parts you didn’t know were there.

as i mentioned before, shatranj delineates two parallel tracks connected by an event. there’s the historical tale of wajid ali and general outram, the british resident played by richard attenborough, who is tasked with coolly filching awadh and dressing it up with enough pomp and pageantry so you’d miss the calumny; then there’s the portrayal in tandem of the life and times and deep uninvolvement of two fictional characters, the chess players. mirza ali sajjad and mir roshan ali, two lucknow nobleman, are obsessed with their game. all they want to do is challenge each other interminably, finding ways to protect their king and check mate the opponent, and never really get into real life or responsibilities in any way. including spending time with their frustrated – understandably – wives, who of course deal with this menace in their own begumi style.

sanjeev kumar’s mirza saab and saeed jaffrey’s mir saab i shall remember long and giggle about. they are completely nawabi with all the airs and graces and pandan and jamawar shawls and the “pehle aap” ways of those men in the higher strata of society back then, especially in lucknow, the capital of awadh. it was a time of transition as the british got hold of more and more of the country. as western ideas of culture and class filtered in, enmeshing with what existed, often regarded as superior even.

my mother would have loved those shawls. i do too. the costumes of shatranj are highly stare worthy. none of the usual over the top, loud, suffocating in zardosi, endlessly layered this and that here. instead, deep understanding of every piece of garment worn by various kinds of people, all with their own social standing and significance and place. this was a time before jeans and tee shirt, and what you wore said several things about you. i read shyama zaidi did the costumes. of course, ray had a major say, the costumes were an absolute treat.

the film moves gracefully and with a penchant for humour, the steps are light and easy, but the issues are serious and affect everyone at some level. there’s imperialism and its fairly nauseating games; there’s the question of responsibility, both the king’s and the ordinary human being’s; there’s greed, betrayal, marital discord, deep seated apathy; there’s beautiful music and dance. and of course, there’s chess. i was fascinated by the boards made of cloth, the large pieces, that whole set up with the paan on little silver hangers (what are those things called i wonder), the hookahs, the air of splendid indolence. ray’s art director bansi chandragupta was keen and particular and an artist really i keep thinking.

shabana azmi as khurshid and farida jalal as nafisa, the two wives, were lovely. hiriya, khurshid’s maid, played by leela misra (who was mausi in sholay i can’t help but remember) was like a social comment all by herself. in rich and angry urdu when shabana complained how she spent her time alone, calling hiriya to tell her stories, and all the wretched woman knew were the same three tales she repeated again and again, with one smartly written dialogue the film maker had told you so many things about society, opportunity, status and yes, the perennial loneliness of women; which as we all know is not restricted to lucknow only.

have i ever seen a kathak in a movie that was quite so serene and sensuous. well known kathak dancer saswati sen was still in college at the time. she was also a student of birju maharaj, ray persuaded her parents to allow her to dance for shatranj. the song, kanha main tose hari is sung by birju maharaj, written by bindadin maharaj, and the music is composed by ray.

amjad khan was almost beautiful with those waves on the forehead and his surma – or was it kohl – lined eyes, a slightly tragic air about him and that something rugged and rough peeping out every now and then. when he sang tadap tadap sagri rain, i was gobsmacked.

the shenanigans of the nawabs were hilarious, all the while giving you glimpses into the life of that decadent nobility and its rambling households. i empathised also because in a way i am in a similar predicament as the khiladis. there’s turmoil in my world but i have no way of engaging with it. i have to sit this one out. or am i making excuses? well if i am, i hope it is as charmingly as these two delightful men. oh what chemistry. and did i see a bit of the bengali in mirza’s whimper that it was too cold to take off one’s clothes and get cosy with the missus?

as i watched i started noticing the sound, its feel. not only were the dialogues in musical and refined urdu, but the background sound effects: a barking dog somewhere, the constant drone of a song from a kotha in another place, or some other thing that you barely notice. the sound added another plane, gave depth to the frame, and subtly created “reality.”

the thought of british rule in india makes me see red. but as i grew older i also became aware that it’s not so simple. history happens for a host of reasons and it leaves an impact at many levels, in many ways. had the british never come to india, for instance, i wonder what the status of women would be today. and would we even have this map of what i consider my land, my home. yet, imperialism and colonialism are terrible things.

this is what satyajit ray told andrew robinson about the british period, “it’s a very very complex mixed kind of thing, the entire british heritage in india. i think many of us owe a great deal to it. i’m thankful for the fact that at least i’m familiar with both cultures and it gives me a very much stronger footing as a film maker, but i’m also aware of all the dirty things that were being done. i really don’t know how I feel about it.”

i love that last line. honest and pithy.

the chess players presented an opportunity to explore and look at these ambiguities and that attracted ray. i am glad he decided he wanted to go ahead despite his initial discomfort with wajid ali shah. satyajit ray wrote the screenplay of shatranj ke khiladi and composed the music.

there are many noteworthy moments in the film. one lingers in me… the bejewelled, plump fingers of wajid ali stroking the ornate, gem studded throne and speaking of his foolishness in agreeing to become king. he murmurs pensively of his “ladakpan,” his boyishness… that was dazzled by the sparkling diamonds and emeralds and all the wealth, the glory, making him agree to take on something he knew he wasn’t cut out for.


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