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Sadgati and Shatranj Ke Khilari: Satyajit Ray's tryst with Hindi cinema and Premchand

Auteur, artist, photographer, filmmaker, storyteller, Satyajit Ray was a rare genius. Despite his deep understanding of the language of cinema, Ray rarely ventured out of the Bengali idiom. The only two times he did so was to transfer Premchand's stories onto celluloid. On his 25th death anniversary (23 April), we look at Ray's trysts with Hindi.

Shriram Iyengar

The film and the novel are intimately connected as mediums of creative expression. This is obvious from the number of novels that have evolved into films. Tagore, Subodh Ghosh, Shakespeare, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay are some of the prominent names to have been transported onto the big screen. Three of Satyajit Ray's major films — Teen Kanya (1961), Charulata (1964), and Ghare Baire (1984) — were based on Tagore's novels.

Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977)

For a man who found the cinematic idiom to be the perfect language to express his ideas, Ray never tried his hand at Hindi cinema till the 1970s. His first attempt at it was through the adaptation of Munshi Premchand's Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977).

Of the 288 stories that Premchand wrote, Ray's choice appears weird at first glance. The story dealt with the avarice, hesitance and opulence of two nawabs of Lucknow, an ethos that Ray was not very familiar with. 

Amjad Khan as Wajid Ali Shah in Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977)

However, Ray had dealt with apathy towards the political class in his films. Also, like Ray, Premchand was a writer who had been disappointed by the inability of film audiences to accept the political polemics of his writing. The legendary writer, who presided over the first meeting of the catalytic movement, the Progressive Writers' Association, tried to make a living as a scriptwriter in the 1920s. However, a conflict with the unions and distributors led to his giving up on the career. 

In Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), Ray passes a critique of the times without passing judgement. In the book Critiquing Colonialism Through Cinematic Frames, author Jasbir Jain suggests that the film 'deals with colonialism and envelops within it feudalism as well as gender inequality'. 

Premchand begins his story by describing Awadh as a kingdom consumed by 'vilasita' (sensuality and luxuriousness). While the story makes sweeping judgments of a culture and society by stating general truths, Ray's film departs from making any such calls. The director made a number of changes to the plot, including the dark ending Premchand had plotted.

Critic and scholar Frances W Pritchett, in his essay The Chess Players: From Premchand to Satyajit Ray, says: "Ray omits the fight to the death for exactly the reason Premchand included it, because it formed a kind of climax to the narrative."

Explaining his decision, Ray would later say he abandoned the idea because he assumed it would symbolize 'the end of decadence'. 

Munshi Premchand

Decadence certainly did not end. Neither in Premchand's story nor in the real world Ray lived in. As a filmmaker, he had experienced the hypocrisy of censors who refused to allow discriminatory words and traditions, present in real life, to be depicted in his films.

Actor Utpal Dutt, in a scathing critique of Ray's admirers, wrote: "They cut line after line of dialogue in Ghare Baire (The Home And The World, 1984), and wanted to stop Sadgati (The Deliverance, 1981) because the word chamar had been used repeatedly in the film. Please note: Sadgati is a film made specifically for TV, and challenging its dialogue constitutes an attack jointly on Ray and Munshi Premchand the writer — pretty bold of TV, one would think. No respect for persons." 

It is this Sadgati (1981) that was Ray's second tryst with Hindi cinema and Premchand. Based on the story of a so-called Untouchable, who works till death (literally) to convince a Brahmin to attend his daughter's wedding, the story connected Ray and Premchand as idealistic comrades. The film was an a ironic take on the decadent caste system that was prevalent in Hindu society, and continues to haunt it. Made in a slow style, almost reminiscent of silent cinema, the film was raised by the quality of performances by Smita Patil, Om Puri and Mohan Agashe.

Sadgati (1981)

Sadgati was Ray's answer to critics who often said his work lacked the political fire of his contemporary Ritwik Ghatak's films. It was a neo-realistic, straightforward narration that exposed the reformist streak in Ray.

Premchand and Ray, separated by decades, were compadres. Where Premchand's works carried reflections of his world, untainted by his judgement and beliefs, so did Ray's films depict a world as it was. Yet, within these two giants of literature and cinema existed revolutionaries who would change the world around them using the medium at their disposal.