In 1974, Hindi film producer Suresh Jindal read an excerpt from a speech given by legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray at the Film and Television Institute of India. The speech, in which Ray spoke of ‘art for art’s sake’ and the importance of considering the audience when making a film, spurred Jindal on to attempt something audacious: to ask Ray if he would direct a Hindi film for Jindal. If not Hindi, then English, Jindal begged the maestro when he met Ray. If not English, even Bengali would do.
Three years later, in 1977, was released Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players), one of only two Hindi films (the other was Sadgati) directed by Ray. Between 1974 and 1977, Jindal and Ray worked closely together, building a rapport that lasted till Ray’s death.
In My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of Shatranj ke Khilari, Jindal shows this relationship through the correspondence between the two men before, during, and after the making of the film.
Interspersed with explanatory comments and the occasional footnote, these letters, spanning the process of inception, creation and release of the film, are a treasure trove. They are not just full of interesting trivia (for instance, the actors considered for the roles, or the meticulous research done by Ray for the film), but more.
These letters go beyond: they show, too, what it was to be a filmmaker in an India where bureaucratic red
tape stifled the industry. They show us how intense and gruelling the process of filmmaking is, how many factors it involves.
Most importantly, though, the letters offer a fascinating insight into the life of one of the world’s greatest directors. Ray’s ‘Renaissance Man’ (as Jindal aptly describes him) personality, his ability to excel at just about everything; his humility and dignity; his loyalty and sense of responsibility towards his crew. His dedication to his work, his greatness, not just as an auteur, but as a human being.
A must-read book for anyone with an interest in cinema, My Adventures with Satyajit Ray brings the director and Shatranj ke Khilari alive, 40 years after the film was made. The accompanying photographs, of Ray’s script (with copious notes and illustrations), of costume design and samples of fabric, of glimpses behind the scenes—are the icing on the cake.
‘I Wish I had Made Game of Thrones’
Film producer Suresh Jindal speaks to Medha Dutta about what it was like working with legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray
Not many would take on a Ray film as their second foray into production. Were you not scared to approach him?
It was a very bold step for me. He had refused everybody, including Raj Kapoor who had promised that he wouldn’t even visit the sets. But I had an intuition. Luckily, I knew Tinu Anand who had worked as an assistant to Ray. And then the maestro agreed.
Did the budget of the film ever put you off the project?
It was a burden. It was more than four times Rajnigandha’s budget. His Sonar Kella, which was in colour, cost him `8 lakh. He was sceptical too. But I was willing to give an arm, and a leg, and my soul to work with him.
Ray was very clear about casting Saeed Jaffrey from the start. Did you also have someone in mind that you were determined to have in the film?
Ray had met Saeed at Beirut airport. He said, ‘When I read the story I immediately thought of Saeed.’ Amjad Khan was my suggestion. In Lucknow there is a picture gallery with a painting of Wajid Ali Shah, and Amjad looked exactly like him. Besides, I wanted stars. Non-stars don’t sell. When you have expensive films, you have to have stars.
There were a lot of hiccups before the project finally took off.
Yes. Sanjeev Kumar got a heart attack, and then Amjad got into a near-death accident. These two major things postponed the film. Anything can stop cinema.
The film was widely appreciated on the festival circuit. Any particular instance you remember?
We were at Berlin and I’m told we lost by just one vote. The translations in the version we sent were not proper—the aap and the tu, German has the same kind of distinction like we have in Hindi. That was not clear while translating.
Your views on Indian cinema today.
In my time, people could only see films through film societies. People would see cinema that was almost six years old. Nowadays youngsters get to see it immediately. You learn cinema by watching cinema, so technically they are very polished. Scripting has also majorly improved. Earlier people would go to festivals just to copy scripts.
Any of the new productions you wish you had made?
I wish I had made Game of Thrones. That is a production anybody can be proud of. It’s phenomenal. But we can’t do it here. There is not enough money for a quality production.