The great Satyajit Ray made only one full-length Hindi film. He later made a telefilm in Hindi Sadgati. The experience of working in Hindi was not a very pleasant one for Ray, and he vowed never to work in Hindi again. He kept his word. Here are facts you may not know about Shatranj Ke Khilari
Satyajit Ray wanted only Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Mirza for the role of the two chess players. For the foreign- trained Mirza adjusting to Manikda’s immaculate timings and schedules was a moonwalk. For the clock-hostile Haribhai (Sanjeev Kumar) it was a nightmare. Habituated to reaching film sets 4-5 hours late the brilliant but notoriously unpunctual actor had to un-learn his work methods. Had to learn to wake up with the roosters and reach the sets at a time when he would normally be stumbling home. Sanjeev’s buddy Shatrughan Sinha, also notorious for his unpunctuality, chuckles, “If I had a chance to work with the great Ray, I wonder if I would have learnt to wake up at 5 am. Probably not. Hats off to Sanjeev Kumar. What happens happens for the best. Hats off to Sanjeev Kumar.”
Shabana Azmi played Sanjeev Kumar’s neglected wife. The experience remains unforgettable. “Manikda had praised me for my performance in Ankur. That for me was the ultimate compliment. If Manikda had asked me to take a broom and sweep the set from one corner to another, I would have happily done it. Here I was getting to play the main female lead. I knew this was Haribhai and Saeed Jaffrey’s film. But my character Khurshid had her moments. I kept asking Manikda when he would cast me again. But he would laugh and and say, only if he made another Hindi film. That was not meant to be.”
Victor Bannerjee who played the prime minister has an interesting story to tell: “Tom Alter and I worked together in my very first film Satyajit Ray’s only Hindi film Shatranj Ke Khiladi. For years, there was a comedy of errors amongst cinegoers who were confused over our parts and I often received accolades for his role, and he for mine”. Victor who much later did the far better-received Ghaire Bhaire with Ray remembers him fondly as the Master storyteller. “Ghaire Bhaire was not an easy film to shoot. There were many problems. But we managed to make our way through it.”
The best performance in Shatranj Ke Khilari came from Amjad Khan, as the effete ineffectual Nawab Wajid Ali Khan listening tear-eyed and quivering-lipped to the thumri Tadap tadap sagri rain guzri. Artistic delicate over-sensitive, clearly not built for the bully’s job of administration. This was quite a long way off Gabbar Singh for Amjad. How did Satyajit Ray imagine Amjad in this role?
Amitabh Bachchan did the voiceover for the film. He regrets not being able to work with Ray. “I regret not getting an opportunity to work with the legend as an actor. But just a mention as a voice -over in his film is a moment of great pride for me. Also artistically, my association for the Rabindranath album and in another ballet by Tanushree Shankar has been extremely rewarding. Several films, documentaries where I have contributed my voice are forgotten now. But they are a sizable number. The most rewarding voice-overs have been the son et lumiere renditions for some prestigious and important national monuments for the Government of India... Khajuraho, Golconda Fort, Gwalior Fort, Tirupati, presentation for the Punjab Museum under construction, several religious institutions.I am also vocally associated with the son et lumiere at Ajmer Fort in Jaipur for the Rajasthan Government. But the experience of having my voice used in Shatranj Ke Khiladi remains unique. It was the closest I came to working with the greatest filmmaker of India.”
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