In a nation reputed for churning out one crappy movie after another ad infinitum, the mere mention of the late Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray’s name evokes aahs and oohs in India.
No matter that few Indians have watched Ray’s movies and fewer still see them these days.
A couple of years back, we watched one of Ray’s older movies, the black and white Charulata (1964).
We liked Charulata but in the hustle and bustle of everyday events and the clamor from readers for newer films it never made it to SI’s reviews page.
Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), based on a Munshi Premchand story, too would have met a similar fate but for the persistence of one of our U.S. readers.
Shatranj Ke Khilari is different from Charulata in several ways.
For one, the newer film is in color.
Next, it is in Hindi/Urdu and not in Ray’s native language Bengali.
But Shatranj Ke Khilari has a bigger difference from its precursor – it featured stars, real Bollywood stars. Faces, a lot of Indians would recognize at first glance.
As in the likes of Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad ‘Gabbar Singh’ Khan and Shabana Azmi. Not to forget Amitabh Bachchan as the narrator.
Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan and Amitabh Bachchan were riding high on the wave of Sholay’s stupendous success.
Why Ray felt compelled to hire top stars we’ll never know for sure now given that the man has been dead for nearly two decades now.
Perhaps, Ray wished to paint on a larger canvas. Maybe, he craved, hungered for a bigger audience for his movie than just the Bengali literati who in any case flocked to his films. Or, did he hanker for wider recognition that would come with big stars.
In any case, Ray’s choice of Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan and Shabana Azmi as well as others like Saeed Jaffrey, Richard Attenborough, Victor Banerjee and Farooq Shaikh was by no means an ill-considered move. After all, none of them are to be found wanting in the acting department.
But in our not-so-humble-view, great film-makers do not need the crutch of star-power to woo a fickle public. It is the first step to artistic surrender, maybe?
The final, and most important,difference, is that Shatranj Ke Khilari is merely an above average film while we’d without a second thought place Charulata in the good or even very good category.
Awadh in 1856
Shatranj Ke Khilari is set in 1856 when the British were already well entrenched in the country. The sway of the East India Company extended from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to the dusty plains of the deep South and from Bombay in the West to Bengal in the East.
But when has the appetite of plunderers been easily sated?
When the weak are prostrate before you, few can resist the the impulse to kick their bowed heads into the dust.
James Broun-Ramsay, First Marquess of Dalhousie and Governor-General at Calcutta, then the capital of India, coveted more.
Dalhousie sought the princely kingdom of Awadh, headed by Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan), a popular ruler who was more interested in poetry, music and dance than in the administration of the state. All, under the watchful eyes of a British Resident (Richard Attenborough) who just couldn’t make sense of the unusual Wajid Ali Khan.
Dalhousie wanted to bring Awadh under direct British control and set in motion plans to do so compelling the Resident to act.
If Wajid Ali Khan was given to the pursuit of pleasure in the face of clear and imminent danger from the British, his nobles were no less indifferent.
Two such nobles Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey), addicted to endless games of chess, form the central focus of this film and give it its title.
In the stupor of the game, the two minor nobles ignore all other responsibilities including their young wives.
Surely, a story of Indian nobility turning a blind eye to the grave danger from the British and pursuing their petty pleasures would be an extraordinary theme.
Alas, Satyajit Ray hits upon on an interesting subject but is not in command of it.
The photography is pedestrian, the dialogs mundane and the story plods on.
And the acting, while all right, never soars.
One would have expected greater passion to the role from the late Sanjeev Kumar.
Whether it’s the chess scenes, the obsession of the two players for the game, the cock-fighting, the frustration of Mirza Sajjad Ali’s wife, the adultery of Mir Roshan Ali’s wife, the gluttonous appetite of the imperious British or the goat-fights in the street, nothing jumps out the screen and grabs you.
Of course, by the standards of the trash emerging from the Bollywood sewers in the 1970s Shatranj Ke Khilari would be sui generis for its novel theme alone.
But then, great artistic works don’t stand out merely because they shine when juxtaposed against garbage. They shine lustrous because they break new ground and go where few before them have.
Soumendu Roy’s camera work is, by God, so mundane that we’d consider the movie an enormous opportunity lost.
On the positive side, the sparse dialogs were a welcome change from the cacophonous din that’s a hallmark of Indian films.
Overall, Shatranj Ke Khilari is an above average movie but not a masterpiece. As long as you keep that in mind, you won’t have issues with the film and, who knows, you might even end up liking it.
Shatranj Ke Khilari is available at Netflix on DVD if you live in the U.S.