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When Satyajit Rays best works are being recounted,Shatranj Ke Khiladi almost never gets a mention. After all,it was Pather Panchali that introduced us to his genius. Apart from the brilliant Apu Trilogy,cineastes laud Charulata,Jalsaghar and Agantuk.
Charulata is a lovely,lovely film. So are several of his other forays into the mind and heart of Bengali bhadralok,the ones that made him a darling of the foreign film circuits,and caused curious inquiries about India among those critics who had no idea of our country and its movies.
But while we are celebrating Rays birth anniversary this week,it is worth remembering Shatranj Ke Khiladi,an underrated gem. To many viewers,it was a lesser Ray,just because it was in Hindi,with a smattering of English. But a re-visit,more than 30 years after it was released,is a delight. Shatranj may not be as personal a vision as in Rays more feted films,but his ability to sketch a broad canvas and tell many acute little stories within it is in shining evidence.
Nawab Wajid Ali Shah,Awadhs effete badshah,gave up his kingdom with a whimper. He was so fond of the finer things of life that he had no stomach for anything else. Amitabh Bachchans fine voiceover sets the scene (Shatranj was made in 1977,and by then Bachchan was a newly minted superstar,with Sholay and Deewar behind him),as he takes us into the heart of Lucknow,skimming over the lives of commoners,delivering us into the world of the decadent nawabs and their dissatisfied begums,and their helpless rangeen,shauqeen badshahs.
This was Amjad Khan in a major role after his virtuoso Gabbar turn,and you hear the familiar lilt in his zubaan,as he nails both the charm and the weakness of the emperor who crawled when the British told him to kneel. The inveterate players of chess,Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffery,are flawlessly drawn: their passion for the game is so overwhelming that the former ignores his gorgeous young wifes (Shabana Azmi) frustrations with a stuttering smile; the latter is equally oblivious of his wifes (Farida Jalal) philandering ways. They play while Awadh burns.
A lot of the outdoor shots were filmed in and around Lucknow. The interiors the houses of the two nawabs Mir and Mirza,the residence of the Company Bahadur (Richard Attenborough),and the palace of Wajid Ali Shah are the result of painstaking research. You do not feel that these are sets. The costumes do not call attention to themselves,but feel just right. And the music,the hallmark of all Ray films,is superb: a kathak dance (choreographed by Birju Maharaj) in the court of the king shows just how much of a travesty movies have made of that elegant dance form.
Shatranj Ke Khiladi needs gentle participation,not active involvement,just like the laid-back main characters of the movie: thats the way to derive maximum pleasure out of the film.