Monday, April 06, 2009

Shatranj Ke Khiladi - a Ray classic

Being from a particular region in a country like India comes with its goods and not so goods. People from one part of the nation don’t necessarily always know of the legendary works of art that happen in another place. Like people in Orissa being unaware of the deep rooted humanitarian movies that come out of the Tamil movie industry or folks in Kerala not aware of some genuinely wonderful pieces of cinema from West Bengal. One cant do too much about this divide given that the Herculean and almost obnoxious presence of ‘Bollywood’ continues to act as the fort that isolates several pockets of creative work in their own shells. Sad but true.

Then there are some film makers whose movies transcend language and region. Film makers like the late Academy Award winner Satyajit Ray sa’ab. OK - I will admit. Except for a few brief scenes from ‘Pather Panchali’ I have not seen any other movie of this great man. Reason? Well, either it was the lack of the need to have to sit through a language I know nothing of and having to squint at the badly framed English subtitles or it was just plain desi callousness that believes the majority is usually right. You know, the classic Indian thinking that has the ‘if everyone says it then it has to be great’ attitude peppered all over it. I am sure there are millions out there who will still tell you that Satyajit Ray was an amazing movie maker without having seen a single frame he might have shot. Considering I too have indulged in such blatancy every now and then, ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ seemed like the only chance I would get to savor Mr. Ray’s cinematic beauty. After all, it was indeed the only Hindi/Urdu movie he made in his life, isn’t it? Hence when I found the chance I took it.

Set in the late 1800s in the then Hindustan ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ runs with two main stories parallel to one another. One – the larger of the two which shows a determinedly boorish English General Outram (a much younger looking Sir Richard Attenborough) pitted against Awadh’s incompetent yet culturally aware Mughal King Wajid Ali Shah (a generously rotund Amjad Khan). The company wants to take over Awadh which remains the final province that is still run by royalty. So it decides to look past a decade old treaty that had promised that Awadh’s royalty would never be lost. But, knowing the way the company ruled the sub-continent, the poetically humane King’s defiance is brought under test as the concubine infested regal refuses to budge from his throne.

The second interestingly laid out strand is that of old buddies Mirza Sajjad Ali (a wonderfully flawless Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (an effervescent Saeed Jaffrey). These two upper middle class noblemen who sit around all day sucking at their well made hookahs and ignoring their frustrated spouses are absolutely obsessed with the game of chess. It is as if nothing – not even the lack of pawns to play with – can stop them from going at it well and good for a few hours each day. While Sajjad Ali’s wife (Shabana Azmi in a small but well placed role) decides to find solace in the housekeeper’s stories, Roshan Ali’s wife (a chubby and visibly mischievous Fareeda Jalaal) chooses to find solace in the arms of a much younger man (a nervous Farooque Shaikh) right under the nose of her unsuspecting husband.

Ray beautifully juxtaposes the story of two chess players with the moves that take over their province and their lives as a foreign power enters their land. While the King is confronted by the orders of the Union Jack under the umbrella of the soulful songs he has composed, the chess players continue to find ways to get a good spot to sit down and well - play a good round of chess. A game, as it turns out, that ends up putting their friendship at stake just like the throne of their clueless King.

The one thing that comes off as obviously as the attention to pretentious ‘paan holders’ by these Lucknawi laat saahebs is Ray’s understanding of the human condition in those times. The beautiful focus to detail of the surroundings only amplify the saga that unfolds eventually while the red vested British army marches into the Awadh province. Cinematography is crisp and captures the fading lights of the royal reign quite effectively. What struck me as more amazing was Ray’s wonderful acknowledgement to the way such potentially affluent cultures used to work during that era. The fact that people in them would rather spend more time on keeping their indulgences alive than worry about their future under the Raj was an eye opener to say the least.

Performances wise everyone does his/her bit effectively. Seasoned actors Sanjeev and Saeed chip in a beautiful contribution. A young Amjad Khan (still fresh from the finely baked success as 'Gabbar Singh' in Sholay) delivers an earnest performance as the King who has his heart in the right place but his head in the wrong spot. As mentioned earlier, a tight lipped Sir Attenborough with a fluent Tom Alter play the scheming Englishmen who are preparing for Awadh's fall with orders from Her majesty the Queen.

All said and done ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ definitely stands out as a Ray classic that is truly a testament to his life as a master story teller. What's curious though is that the movie is based on a story by the legendary Shri Munshi Premchand. Could there be a better example of two Hindus coming together to design such a sensitive and relevant epic about the Muslim reign and culture? Unlikely, according to me.


2 reflections:

Ebrahim Kabir said...

Great writeup, one of my favorite Ray film, but I continue to prefer his Apu and Calcutta Trilogy.

ShaK said...


Thank you, friend. I am glad you enjoyed the write up. I am yet to see something else directed by Ray. Hope to catch the ones you mentioned in your response.