Shatranj Ke Khilari, The Chess Players (1977)

Very early on in his extensive research for The Chess Players (which took him as far afield as London), Ray ran into his own antipathy for the King, which was mixed with admiration. At several points he felt like giving up altogether and wrote to say so in a number of letters jointly addressed to his Urdu collaborator Shama Zaidi and to Bansi Chandragupta, who was then in Bombay too. On one occasion Shama had written to Ray offering to translate Wajid Ali’s autobiography for him, in which the King describes his sex life form the age of eight. ‘Manikda said—don’t tell all this because then I’ll dislike him even more,’ Shama recalls with a laugh. Satyajit says now:

I think there were two aspects to Wajid Ali Shah’s character, one which you could admire and one which you couldn’t. At one point I wrote to Shama that I just could not feel any sympathy for this stupid character. And unless I feel some sympathy I cannot make a film. But then finally, after longs months of study, of the nawabs, of Lucknow, and of everything, I saw the King as an artist, a composer who made some contributions to the form of singing that developed in Lucknow. The fact that he was a great patron of music—that was one redeeming feature about this King.

From the earliest scenes of the film, Ray emphasizes Wajid Ali Shah’s musicality. We see him dressed as Krishna in an opera he had himself composed, or beating a drum at the festival of Muharram, or watching an entrancing Kathak dance performance. ‘Nothing but poetry and music should bring tears to a man’s eyes,’ he tells his Prime Minister with a hint of sterness, on seeing him weep after an interview with the British Resident. Later at the moment when he decides to give up his throne without a fight, he delivers himself of the thumri that entered common currency in India—rather as Richard III’s cry at the Battle of Bosworth Field has done among English-speakers:

Jab chhorh chaley Lakhnau nagari,

Kaho haal adam par kya guzeri…

(When we left our beloved Lucknow

See what befell us…)

Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye by Andrew Robinson

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