When the film producer Suresh Jindal approached Satyajit Ray in the mid 70s with a request to make a film in Hindi, or in English, or if not, in Bengali, he was in for a surprise.  Not only was Manik-da (as Ray was called) open to do a Hindi film, he even had a story in mind for it. It was “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” (1924) written by the famous Hindustani writer Munshi Premchand.  Jindal has described in his book, “My Adventures with Satyajit Ray”, the fascinating story of the making of ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’, incorporating letters written to him by Ray. It turned out to be wishful thinking on the part of Jindal to expect their film to change the course of Hindi cinema. Once it was made, the distributors for all the five territories in India backed out as they were concerned that it wouldn’t make money as an art film. It was rumoured that their backtrack was the work of “some big guns in the Bombay industry, nervous at Ray’s use of stars and the potential all-India appeal”.  The period it took to find new distributors and release the film affected its success at the box office. ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’ ended up to be Ray’s first and last Hindi feature film. The critical reception wasn’t as good as Ray received for many of his earlier films. It was nominated for the Golden Bear at Berlin but didn’t win it. In this centenary year of Ray when we take a look at it, we can see that it deserved much better recognition and acclaim than it received.
The film is set in the year 1856 in Lucknow. Describing the city’s splendour in those days, Abdul Halim Sharar called Lucknow as “Babylon of India” in his book “Guzeshta Lucknow”, translated into English by E.S. Harcourt and Fakir Hussain as “Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture” . Sharar’s book was one of the principal sources Ray consulted. Wajid Ali Shah was the Nawab of Oudh whose court was in Lucknow. For long, the kingdom of Oudh was protected by the East India company (an English, and later British, joint-stock company founded in 1600 to trade in the Indian Ocean region) under a treaty. By order of Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of the East India Company, the English Resident General James Outram carried out the annexation of Oudh on February 11, 1856 and Wajid Ali Shah, was deposed.
“Shatranj Ke Khiladi”, Premchand’s long short story describes how Lucknow was drowned in sensuality during that period.  Every aspect of life was tinged with self-indulgence. The story follows two gentlemen of Leisure: Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali. They were hereditary Jagirdars – the king’s officials who enjoyed the land gifted from the king in return for the services rendered by them. The entire kingdom appeared to be in trouble. While there was lavish spending by the people, taxes were not collected properly and the yearly revenue could not be paid to the English company. The money owed to the company kept increasing day by day. The English Resident’s threats were ignored by people who were immersed in seeking pleasures. Both Mirza Sahib and Mir Sahib would play chess all day not caring for their families. If Mirza’s wife drove them out of her house by throwing away the chess pieces, Mir’s wife did so by having somebody come disguised as a cavalryman with” summons from the king for Mir Sahib, perhaps with a need for the army”. This forced the chess players to leave the city during the day and play in an old mosque in the outskirts. They continue to play to save their chess kings, unmindful of seeing the East India company’s forces entering Lucknow, capturing the city without a fight and escorting their real king Wajid Ali Shah to an unknown destination.
Structure of the film
This story will not make a full-length feature film. Also, this main thread deals only with the aristocratic class which is supposed to serve the king when it is needed. By adding two more threads – those of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and General James Outram, Satyajit Ray came up with a structure that gave multiple perspectives to the history concerning the annexation of Oudh by the East India Company. The three threads capture the different worlds belonging to the aristocracy, Nawab and colonialism. There is also the character of the peasant boy Kalloo created by Ray as the helper who brings food for the chess players when they go to play in the outskirts of the city. Kalloo represents the common man but he appears briefly. The audience cannot identify with any of the major characters. They are in three different planes and each plane cannot relate to the other much. In Premchand’s story, the two aristocrats end up fighting with their swords and killing each other. Ray has not included such an ending in the film as the way of life of the aristocracy continued even after the annexation. This denies a resolution to the main thread comprising the chess players, making it plotless. The colonialism thread meets the Nawab thread thrice. It also meets the aristocracy thread towards the end. Although the film is set in a definite historical period about a major event, it is not a documentary. Impressions about the Nawab collected from sources such as Sharar’s book have been used by Ray to create a lifelike character of Wajid Ali Shah. General Outram has been invested with some ambivalence as he is not convinced of the merit of the annexation although he had to go through it. Premchand’s story condones the chess players for their irresponsibility. Ray depicts their decadence without condoning it.
The Chess Players
Among the three parallel threads in the film, the main thread revolving around the chess players has been enlivened by Ray’s touch of humour and his inspired casting. Sanjeev Kumar had won the national award for the best actor twice and he was considered one of the best actors of Indian cinema. Apart from character roles, he had a flair for doing comedy roles too. So, he was the right choice for Mirza Sajjad Ali. Ray had liked the British-Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey’s performance the most in James Ivory’s ‘The Guru’ (1969) which made it an easy choice to cast him as Mir Roshan Ali. Shabana Azmi’s performance in Sham Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ (1974), praised by Ray, got her the role of Khurshid, Mirza’s wife. Farida Jalal, who had entered the industry by winning a Talent Hunt, got the role of Nafisa, Mir’s wife.
The film opens with the close-up of a chess board, the pieces on which are moved by two hands alternatively. The voice-over narration by Amitabh Bachchan calls them the hands of the mighty generals deploying their forces on the battlefield. It gently makes a comment that they may not hold real weapons to fight for the empire. A medium shot reveals the two players and the narration introduces them. This brilliant opening takes us straight to the chess board, announcing the theme of chess. It is a recurring theme in the film which evokes the decadence of the period immersed in pleasure seeking. Ray’s love and knowledge of chess helped the film immensely. While the people in Lucknow were engaged in all kinds of activities such as watching pigeons, kite flying and cockfights, Mirza and Mir were addicted to chess. A friend of the players, Munshi Nandlal (David Abraham), explains to them the British way of playing chess. He also informs them that the East India company plans to take over Oudh. The chess players don’t take it seriously. The meeting with Munshi Nandlal conveys the amity between Hindus and Muslims in Oudh in Wajid’s time. This character is not in Premchand’s story but added by Ray.
There are some other aspects added by Ray to the original story. When Khurshid, Mirza’s wife, calls Mirza to her room pausing the game he is engaged in playing with Mir, Ray has added the sensual aspect. Khurshid says she has no headache but she would like him to lie down in bed with her. Mir moves a chess piece during Mirza’s absence. Only Mir’s hands are shown through the half open doors to depict his furtive act. As for Nafisa, Mir Sahib’s begum, she preferred to have her husband away from home as in Premchand’s story. Ray has added the reason behind it: Nafisa is shown flirting with Mir’s nephew Aqil (Farooq Sheikh). At the end of the film this is a cause for the scuffle between Mirza and Mir. In Mir’s house there is a shot of Mir framed with a circular display of swords and some more weapons in display on the wall. He’s afraid that he may be summoned to fight for the king. Mirza has a hearty laugh at it, teasing him as the descendant of Burhan-ul-Mulk’s brave cavalry officer. This thread of chess players is in the style of comedy of manners.
In the end Mirza and Mir run down each other’s ancestors leading to a fight. In Premchand’s story they don’t care much for national valour but they possess personal pride in plenty. They don’t have as much passion for politics to die for the country. However, they have no fear when it comes to personal matters. They fight till death. Ray has considerably changed the end. Mirza insinuates that Mir’s wife is carrying on with Mir’s nephew. They run down each other’s ancestry but Mirza’s insinuation regarding his wife makes Mir lose his sense and he takes his pistol pointing it at Mirza. Perhaps he fires his pistol accidentally – the only shot fired in the film as written by a reviewer – just when Kalloo the peasant boy arrives and says that the British are coming. The East India Company’s army is marching with the beat of drums. Mirza is shocked but there is no injury as the bullet just grazed his left arm. Kalloo is sad that the king has given up without a fight revealing his patriotism which is lacking in the chess players. They admit that they’re not able to cope up with matters of home let alone with matters of the kingdom. That they start playing the game in the British way signals their meek acceptance of the colonial rule and continuation of their way of life under the British flag.
Nawab Wajid Ali Shah
According to Andrew Robinson, the author of “Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye”, Ray wrestled with the problem of how to portray the character of Wajid Ali Shah sympathetically as he himself had an aversion to him having read about his debauchery. After some months of research by him, Ray cracked it. “It was Wajid’s genuine musical gifts that reconciled Ray to the rest of the king’s character.”  The suggestion for casting Amjad Khan – who had shot to stardom after playing Gabbar Singh in Ramesh Sippy’s ‘Sholay’ (1975) – for the role of Wajid Ali Shah came from the producer Suresh Jindal.  Despite Ray’s initial reservations about Amjad Khan as he used to be typecast as a villain, the actor gave a memorable performance as the Nawab.
Ray establishes the character of Wajid quickly with a few brush strokes. The very first time we see Wajid Ali Shah, he is playing Krishna in the rahas written by him along with the ladies of the palace playing gopis, milkmaid loves of Krishna, to the accompanying music – Wajid’s song Subha lagana subha sagana chaatra dharo mayee. This is followed by his playing of the tasha (drum) during Muharram procession and then he is reclining in his harem surrounded by a bevy of beauties. Later, when the Prime Minister Ali Naqi Khan goes to break the bad news of the plan for annexation to Wajid Ali Shah, he is watching the performance of a Kathak dancer Bismillah Jan (Saswati Sen) to the song of Kanha Main Tose Haari, meaning “Oh Krishna, I’m so weary”, sung in playback by Birju Maharaj. Wajid’s personality comes through in this scene and the next one in which he delivers his monologue. Seeing tears in the Prime Minister Ali Naqi Khan’s eyes, Wajid admonishes Ali saying that “Nothing but poetry and music should bring tears to a man’s eyes.” Among the row of officials Wajid addresses after that with his monologue, there is Balkishen, the Hindu Dewan (finance minister). Wajid rebukes them all for deceiving him by making money unfairly. He then blames himself for falling in love with the regalia, the pomp and the glitter. His initial involvement as the king and raising the army ended as the English Resident Richard felt it was redundant for the king to have an army. The kingdom was guarded by the Company’s forces paid by the king anyway. Wajid stopped bothering about the realm signified by his indifference to a man whose petition was read out in the Wajid’s court. He was imagining his love departing and composed a song Tadap Tada Sagri Rain (sung by Amjad Khan himself) at that time. He admits that he was never meant to rule. Amjad Khan of ‘Sholay’ (1975) fame proved that he could pull off this confessional monologue quite well and excel in this unlikely role.
After the meeting of General Outram with the Queen, mother of Wajid, in which she tells Outram that she is going to take up the matter with Queen Victoria, Wajid is seen in the evening light as the sun is setting, signifying the going down of his kingdom. He comes out with his tumri, also sung by Amjad Khan himself. Jab chhod chale Lucknow nagri, kahen haal ke, kahen haal keham par kya guzri jab chhod chale lucknow nagri meaning
“When I leave my beloved Lucknow
I do not know
I do not know how I shall bear
the pain of parting
When I leave my beloved Lucknow.”
His offering of his turban when General Outram comes at the appointed time signifies that he can give up the administration but he wouldn’t sign the treaty. Satyajit Ray’s complex portrayal of Wajid Ali Shah, especially bringing out his musical and poetic genius, elevates the film to a higher plane.
General James Outram
The game of chess is not just associated with the two aristocrats but metaphorically there is the political chess played by the East India Company directed by the British government. Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India, wrote in one of his letters quoted in the film referring to Oudh as a “cherry which will drop into our mouths one day.” This gave Ray the idea to include a cartoon in which an English sahib removed the crowns of cherries – denoting Punjab, Burma, Nagpur, Satara and Jhansi – and popped them into his mouth leaving just the cherry of Oudh. It is a task left for General Outram played by Richard Attenborough, a British actor and director and filmmaker who went on to make ‘Gandhi’ (1982). Satyajit Ray had met him in film festivals. When Ray and Jindal met him in London, Ray wondered whether Attenborough would be willing to play Outram which was not a big role. Suresh Jindal has written that Attenborough replied to Ray: “Satyajit, I would be happy to recite even the telephone directory for you!”.  Attenborough gave an excellent performance as Outram.
One of the best scenes in the film is the one in which Outram is intrigued by the personality of Wajid Ali Shah and quizzes Captain Weston (Tom Alter), his Aide-De-Camp, about him. Weston has developed some affinity for the Lucknow culture and he has learnt Urdu, the local language. He says that the king is rather good as a poet and recites a poem by Wajid Ali Shah. Outram is not amused and displays his inability to relate to the king with his accomplishments. He doesn’t agree with Weston calling the king a special kind and describes him as a bad king who has no business to rule. Weston may risk his promotion if he continues to show sympathy for the culture of Oudh. V.S. Naipaul has raved about this scene saying, “It is like a Shakespeare scene. Only 300 words are spoken but goodness! — terrific things happen.”  In a later scene with Dr Joseph Fayrer, the Resident doctor, Outram shares with him how he finds the king to be the biggest bundle of contradictions: “I mean, a devout man who prays five times a day, never drinks and keeps a harem the size of a regiment! A king who sings, dances, versifies, plays the tom-tom, flies kites from the palace roof and struts around the stage surrounded by frolicking nautch-girls.” He also has qualms about having to ask the king to sign a new treaty as there is already one and the king would be justified in insisting on the validity of the earlier treaty and refusing to sign the new one.
The meeting with the Queen Mother Aulea Begum (Veena) signifies the chasm between the western and the Nawabi cultures. There is a Kashmiri shawl as a curtain held by two eunuchs that separates the Queen and Outram. The Queen is seated showing her back to the shawl. After a question from Outram, a tracking shot will take us to the Queen for her answer, conveying the distance to be crossed between them. A question from the queen puzzles Outram: “Does the Queen of England realize how her servant is treating His Majesty who is servant of Almighty God and nobody else?” Outram continues to be puzzled during the meeting with the king when he requests him to sign the treaty. Wajid offers his turban instead to the baffled Outram who asks Weston his ADC, “Would you please tell his Majesty that I have no use for that”. Soon Wajid Ali Shah would have to leave Lucknow for good and the Governor General would have had his cherry.
Criticism of the film
Andrew Robinson has written that the general critical reaction was one of somewhat muted praise abroad, while there were some positive and negative reviews too.  In general, reviews in India were favorable especially by Iqbal Masud who wrote in praise of the film highlighting the film’s merits. However, there was a censorious article in the erstwhile “The Illustrated Weekly of India” titled “Ray’s Wajid Ali Shah” by Rajbans Khanna, a filmmaker. He wrote that Ray depicted Wajid Ali Shah as “effete and effeminate”. Ray made an eloquent rejoinder to it in which he gave the list of 14 sources he consulted for the film and explained the scenes concerning Wajid and how he depicted him.  He also wrote how in the scene in which Outram meets Wajid to request him to sign the treaty and formalize his abdication, Ray has made a departure from his sources. According to Sharar, “The king, weeping and wailing, made every effort to exonerate himself.” Ray pointed it out to Khanna how the omission of this detail made a difference to his depiction of Wajid Ali Shah. To Khanna’s criticism that Ray’s film didn’t convey that the annexation sparked off the Sepoy Mutiny a year later, Ray wrote that the Mutiny was in fact sparked off by the ammunition for the new Enfield rifle and the annexation provided fuel later. He added that ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’ was not a film about Wajid and nor was it aimed to build up a case for the Mutiny. Khanna replied to it in the magazine with a title “Ray has missed the wood for the trees” to which Ray didn’t reply. Looking at the film now, one can see how, despite Wajid’s failings, Ray has in fact evoked sympathy for Wajid’s high culture and his tragedy of losing his kingdom, having to leave his beloved city forever.
A Historical Classic
The period of Wajid Ali Shah has been lovingly recreated by art directors Bansi Chandragupta and Ashoke Bose. The cinematography by Soumendu Roy captures the magnificent Bara Imambara as well as the narrow lanes of Lucknow. Ray used to operate the camera himself since ‘Charulata’ (1964). The choreography was done by Pandit Birju Maharaj a master of the Kathak dance form. Shama Zaidi and Javed Siddiqi were Ray’s co-dialogue writers for Urdu. Ray scored the music apart from writing the screenplay and directing the film. This was the only non- Bengali feature film that Ray made. ‘Sadgati’ was also in Hindi but it was not of feature length. Suresh Jindal must be lauded for producing an Urdu/Hindi/English film for the all-India market directed by the great Ray, covering an important aspect of history – colonialism and the Awadhi Muslim Culture.
Immanuel Wallerstein has written in his book “World-Systems Analysis”: “The colonial powers justified their assumption of authority and the distribution of roles to persons from the “metropolitan” country by a combination of arguments: racist arguments about the cultural inferiority and inadequacy of the local populations; and self-justifying arguments about the “civilizing” role the colonial administration was performing.”  East India Company was part of a world-system that had colonized various parts of the world. As a company, its main goal was increasing the revenue. Somewhat analogous to takeover of companies by a giant corporate, the East India company kept annexing independent states in India citing reasons such as misrule and poor administration. The Company tried to understand the local culture to the extent needed to capture and control a state. Satyajit Ray’s ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’ is pre-eminent in capturing the clash of cultures between the East and the West in its complexity.
- Suresh Jindal, My Adventures with Satyajit Ray, Noida: Harper Collins, 2017.
- Satyajit Ray, The Chess Players and Other Screenplays, London, Faber & Faber, 1989, pp 62-74 (Premchand, Translated into English by Saeed Jaffrey, A Game of Chess).
- Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, London, I.B. Tauris, 2004, pp 240-251.
- Abdul Halim Sharar, Translated into English by E.S. Harcourt and Fakhir Hussain, Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Satyajit Ray, My Wajid Ali is Not ‘Effete and Effeminate ‘! , Bombay: The Illustrated Weekly of India, December 31, 1978.
- Immanuel Wallerstein. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, Durham and London, 2004, p 56.
Babu Subramanian is a Bengaluru based film critic who co-founded “Deep Focus”, the erstwhile quarterly film journal. He is a member of Film Critics Circle of India. Following is his blog on Medium: https://babusubramanian.medium.com/