Vantage point

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Saw it at last!

Sholay was touted as the movie with the greatest star cast of all times. But today I saw the movie which really had the most awe-inspiring crew behind it, and not just on screen.

Imagine a movie based on a story by perhaps the greatest writer in the world of Hindi literature (Munshi Premchand), directed by the greatest director this country has ever produced (Satyajit Ray), with a narration by the most famous baritone in the country (Amitabh Bachchan), and starring, not just some all-time great Indian actors (Shabana Azmi, Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan, Victopr Banerjee), but also an all-time great Hollywood actor-director (Richard Attenborough).

For those who've not guessed it yet, today I finally saw 'Shatranj Ke Khiladi', the only Hindi movie Ray made.

Most of the credit goes to history itself, for the history of Avadh has so many great stories, that you could spend an entire career movies based on them. The naive decadence of the Nawab (Amjad Khan) and his subjects which led to a great kingdom being just handed over to the Britishers has been aptly portrayed in the film.

Then some credit goes to Premchand as well, for weaving the sub-plot of the two zamindaars, Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir (Saeed Jaffrey), who are obsessed with the game of chess. Despite being from families whose previous generations were feisty warriers, these two have been softened so much by the easy life in Lucknow, that they prefer the make-believe wars in the game of chess to real-life battleds, or even domestic battles.

The remaining credit goes to Ray for translating the story into an excellent piece of cinema through his dialogues, screenplay and direction.

The brilliance of the man at helm of this movie is also evident from many other facets of the story.

For instance, this is perhaps one of the few movies which has portrayed the Britishers as real human beings with shades of grey, rather than being just pure evil or pure saints. When Outram (Attenborough) tells Weston (Tom Alter) about the Company's plans to annexe Avadh, the expressions on Weston's face say it all. His first reaction is one of disbelief, for the Nawab a a genuine nice guy, and his subjects don't seem to be having any problems with him, and there seems to be no justification for the annexation. Even later on, Outram is shown as being troubled by having to blatantly disregard the peace treaty and gobble up a kingdom without justification. However, in a business-like manner, they complete the annexation without a blood being dropped.

The scene where the Nawab confronts his aides is also a gem. Firstly, it is so reminiscent of the famous Gabbar scene, that any moment, you expect Amjad Khan to shed the Nawaabi poise and yell "SOOAR KE BACHCHON!!!!". Instead he proceeds to pour his heart out, showing how disconnected he is from the real world, living in a fairytale world of his own. While boasting of his poetic talents, he asks "How many songs has Queen Victoria written?".

The movie ends on a very poignant note as well, using a chess metaphor. A brilliant film, definitely one of the best in Hindi.

This now takes my Ray-count up to a paltry two, with 'Goopi Gaayin Bagha Baayin" being the other movie. If any reader of this blog who is in Mumbai or Pune, has any other Ray-pieces with subtitles, please lend them to me. I shall be eternally grateful.