The great filmmaker Satyajit Ray had not read Munshi Premchand, largely unaware of Hindi and Urdu literature that he was. But whatever exposure he had to the immortal genius, it must have given him a fair idea of one of the most prolific writers of India. In both his Hindi movies based on Premchand's works, one a telefilm “Sadgati” (The deliverance) and the other a feature “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” (The Chess Players) Ray showed exceptional flair one, in picking the right literature for screen adaptation and two, in placing the theme on a broader landscape without diluting the author’s conviction.
Most of the ingredients for his earlier work, prior to this film, were drawn from a familiar Bengal milieu, though he made no bones of the fact that it was Bhibhuti Bhushan's novel that introduced him to rural Bengal…one that placed Ray on the world map with his magnum opus Pather Panchali- the first of his timeless trilogy classic. Hence his interest in Premchand was admirable, that showed an eye for gems and a profound understanding of his medium to see potent stories – ones that would blossom before the camera.
I focus my attention here to Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players), one of the most amazing portrayals of Lucknow against the backdrop of British invasion lurking in the elusive treaties of friendship offered by the East India Company. Premchand sketched one of the most astute parallels between British aspirations and the legendary game, as also, the picture of an 1856 Lucknow drugged in celebration of art and culture under the short-lived regime of Wajid Ali Shah, the tranquil percolating to the lowest echelons of society. He remarks in a line “yaha tak ki phakiron ko paise milte to ve rotiyan na lekar afhim khate ya madak pite” (Even the beggars seemed to prefer opium & liquor over food whenever they had money at hand)
Through the genius of his superlative idiom, Premchand exposed the fake morals of his central charaters - Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, both landlords & friends and reeling in the hypnotic spell of chess, shunning the world around them – the world of family chores, marital duties, cheating wives, social pressures, marching troops, everything else but the chessboard. Fearing mandatory participation in the war against the Company in the light of the growing adversity, they flee to the outskirts and simulate their relaxed surroundings, only to drown back in the game of chess. A trivial dispute in the game soon takes the shape of a war and all of a sudden, family honour is found at stake. Accusing each other of swindling, fraud, borrowed royalty and inferior roots, both lose their lives in a terminal combat, a mutual checkmate of sorts. Through the conflict of the two, Premchand highlights the irony of their beliefs - it was the false pride of individual honour, not the larger cause of their state that was found worthy of sacrifice. Ray retained the paradox in a new flavour –also focusing on the royal checkmate of Wajid Ali Shah tottering in the fake support of the East India Company.
Ray keeps the protagonists alive, and makes a telling comment through them in the end…”Hamse Hamari biwiyan nahi sambhalti, hum goron se kya ladhenge” (We can’t handle our wives, how can we cope with the might of the company?) The characters of General Outram and Captain Weston examining the pros and cons of the king, his tastes, his lifestyle, his women and his art…wrapped in one delightful tête-à-tête is undoubtedly the hallmark of this film… a product of Ray’s exceptional screenplay and one that had V S Naipul shower the famed compliment “It’s a like a Shakespeare scene. Only three hundred words spoken, but terrific things happen.”
The master that he was, in each department of his profession, Ray was firm on picking the right cast for playing his characters. He had a wealth of talent in his own native land, most of his staple cast would have done justice to the said roles but he never knew compromise. Hisgenius thrived on authentic settings and the result was obvious. Shataranj ke Khiladi, Ray’s most expensive film then, won critical acclaim worldwide in all the right circles. The star cast was impressive, much like the blockbuster Sholay - but more importantly, each artiste lived the role to recreate a splendid slice of history, whether Richard Attenborough as the stoic and ruthless General Outram, Tom Alter as the mild mannered Captain Weston with a soft corner for Indian art, Amjad Khan as Wajid Ali Shah, a mute spectator of his own downfall, Victor Banerjee as the well meaning prime minister Ali Naqi khan, desperately coaxing his somnolent king to take charge, Saeed Jaffery as Mir Roshan Ali, one of the duo falling to the fatal addiction of chess...and of course Sanjeev Kumar himself, then a top-notch star of the bustling Bombay film industry, in one of his outstanding performances as Mirza Sajjad Ali.
Shabana Azmi, Leela Mishra, Barry John, Farooq Shaikh, Fareeda Jalal…all stuck the right chord with the audience in their respective cameos. And who can forget the baritone voice-over of Amitabh Bachchan quipping rich insights through the crafty narrative.
A tribute to Premchand, Ray & his crew. ………and the pathos of Avadh beneath the royal splendour and merriment, unaware of the impending doom.