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Amjad Khan: The forgotten nawab

In his only Hindi feature film, Satyajit Ray cast one of the greatest villains of all time as the sensitive, delicate nawab on the threshold of losing his realm. In a film with consummate actors, Amjad Khan stood out for his remarkably subtle performance. On his 24th death anniversary, we explore this special show.

Shriram Iyengar

Satyajit Ray's Hindi film debut, Shatranj Ke Khilari, was everything a Hindi film was not in the 1970s. It was slow-paced, filled with chaste Urdu dialogues, and cast one of Hindi cinema's biggest villains as the quiet, mousy nawab being bullied by the British. So great was the apprehension about the film that Ray struggled to find distributors for the Northern region. At a time when Amitabh Bachchan was bashing goons at will, this film was an anachronism. Yet, it had a perfect casting choice – Amjad Khan as Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.

For a man who broke through on the silver screen with the ferocious Gabbar Singh, Amjad Khan was a gentle man. Making his debut on stage at the age of 11, he continued to act in one form or the other. It was only when Salim Khan, one part of the writer duo of Sholay, suggested his name to Ramesh Sippy that he was even considered for the 'grand' debut.

Javed Akhtar, the other part of the duo, felt his voice was too weak. Yet, the quiet, unassuming man from a struggling family became one of the most despised, feared, legendary villains to ever grace Hindi cinema. It was symptomatic of the quiet strength of Amjad Khan that he was able to make a mark despite the presence of stars like Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjeev Kumar.

Shatranj Ke Khilari was based on Munshi Premchand's famous short story, Shatranj Ki Baazi. The tale was set in Lucknow, circa 1857, in the kingdom of the last nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah.

The story of Wajid Ali Shah is a convoluted one. British history recalls him as a lacklustre ruler with no sense of governance or interest in the welfare of his people. By other accounts, the nawab was a polymath, musician, painter, poet, dancer, and man of great sensitivity. It is little wonder then that Ray had only three principal actors in mind when he arrived in Bombay for the casting of the film – Shabana Azmi, Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan.

It is quite remarkable that an actor like Amjad Khan is remembered mostly for his most bombastic villainous roles. An immaculate actor, Khan believed in immersing himself in the character. To prepare for the role of the dreaded dacoit Gabbar Singh, the actor reportedly studied the novel 'Abhishapth Chambal' (The Cursed Chambal) by famed journalist Taroon Kumar Bhaduri, Jaya Bhaduri's father.

The actor could segue from Hindi to Urdu to Persian to English with ease. A post-graduate in philosophy, one assumes he might have identified himself with the wronged personality of Wajid Ali Shah.

As the quiet ruler who finds himself politically and militarily outmaneouvred by the British, Amjad Khan was excellent. He exuded a nobility, grace, and sophistication that was unlike his avatars in the Prakash Mehra-Manmohan Desai genre of films. In the opening sequence of Ray's film, Wajid Ali Shah is described as a nawab 'jinhe raaj kaaj ke alaava har tarah ke shauq hai.' The very next scene sees Amjad Khan playing said nawab in a theatrical production of Krishna's life. This was one of the rare occasions where Amjad Khan, the fearsome villain, was seen performing to the music of a classical thumri. It was also one of the few occasions when Amjad Khan, the actor, got the space to display his grace.

For all his artistic gifts, Wajid Ali Shah was deposed and maligned as a hedonist ruler. He never managed to recover either his realm or his prestige in the books of history. Two decades since his sudden death, Amjad Khan is still remembered as the vicious Gabbar Singh, the greatest villain of all time. In reality, he was the multilingual, aesthetic gentleman, Amjad Khan.