SCREENsavour: Blunder averted

Despite his affection for the Premchand short story that Ray nurtured for a long time, wanting to turn it into a Hindi film if he ever made any, Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) almost never got made. The reasons though, were not the prohibitive costs. In a letter Ray wrote to Suresh Jindal who eventually produced the film, he rues, “My biggest stumbling block, however, is the growing impression in my mind that the story is intractable from a script point of view, or at best can make an arty, intellectual type of film which would put off the distributors.”

One of the things Ray was apprehensive about was how to depict the game of chess which the two protagonists play throughout the story. “The idea of addiction to an intellectual game would remain at a level of abstraction — except to chess addicts — no matter how much you tried to make it psychologically believable. And the moment you got down to the business of showing the game, silence and inaction would descend upon the screen… One would be on safer grounds if the quiet moments of the play could come between scenes of strong action…” Still prevaricating, he warns Jindal, “I’ve scrapped dozens of stories after a period of initial enthusiasm just because they proved unscriptable.”

It is always fascinating to read about the intense creative process that artists engage in to bring their works to fruition. Suresh Jindal’s My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of Shatranj Ke Khilari is a heartfelt account of one of the greatest collaborations between a producer and a director: a 33-year old UCLA trained electronics engineer keen on promoting meaningful cinema engaging with one of the greatest auteurs of world cinema who was 57 at the time they first met. Forty years after the film’s release, the awe that Ray inspired in Jindal is still in evidence; but Jindal also manages to tear through the admiration and talks about his differences with Ray that led to bitterness — albeit temporarily, and lets the reader gain a rare insight into the flesh and blood man that lay beyond the genius.

It’s common knowledge that Ray was a control freak and was an intensely private and shy person who hated going to social gatherings; the book is full of such accounts. He never let his popularity and genius affect his attitude towards people and had an unassuming quality that belied his international status.

He was, in contemporary parlance — a cool guy, never letting go off his equanimity, even under the harshest of circumstances. The only time he lost his cool was when he felt Jindal was giving preferential treatment to the Bombay crew over his Calcutta crew. Jindal denies such accusations and claims that vested interests tried to drive a wedge between him and Ray. And Ray, for quite some time, fell a victim to such misgivings. But Jindal never let such bitterness affect the production. 

The letters that Ray exchanged with Jindal constitute a considerable portion of the book, tracing the entire production process from the point they first met, deciding on the story, the meticulous research that Ray engaged in and his designing of the sets, the casting — till the marketing of the film.  They reveal a fertile, inexhaustible mind that Jindal occasionally found difficult to cope up with. 

Jindal recalls an interesting incident where, upon developing the film it was discovered that an actor was without a scarf which was a part of his costume in earlier shots. Ray asked Jindal if he could re-shoot the scene. Even though Jindal dreaded the expenditure of rebuilding the set, he agreed. “A day later, he called and said that he didn’t need the whole set, just one wall of it… I told him that Bansi-da (Ray’s art director) had insisted that the whole set be rebuilt…” Ray replied, “Don’t bother about Bansi. You see, Suresh, all art directors always want elaborate sets so that they can be admired by all who see the film. We can do with just one background wall.” An account of a towering personality whose influence still hovers over world cinema, Jindal’s engrossing book is a must read for all film aficionados.

 (Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker,  instructor  and writer)

Ranjan Das