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Shatranj Ke Khiladi to Sadgati — when Satyajit Ray found his inspiration in Premchand

Satyajit Ray helped usher in the era of symbolic filmmaking in India through Premchand's poignant, sensitive works. His only two Hindi films are proof.

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One of the least talked-about aspects of Satyajit Ray’s cinematic world is his tryst with Munshi Premchand’s work. On one hand, Munshi Premchand exemplified how a literary lens is most rewarding for exploring conflicts of society, as well as its textures, fragmentations and nuances. But on the other, it was auteur extraordinaire Satyajit Ray who played a key role in bringing Premchand’s layered and heart-warming stories to the limelight.

The tradition of ‘filming’ literature has been a rich and long one. The liveliness of ‘Shabd‘ and ‘Charitra’ are best captured through film. This long connection between memory and vitality has been immortalised in the works of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Aparna Sen, Basu Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and many others.

However, the relationship between literature and cinema seems incomplete without ‘Ray moshai’ and his adaptation of writer Munshi Premchand’s works. While Ray is known for his contribution to Bengali cinema, he has made only two films in Hindi — both based on the stories of Premchand. In 1977, he made Shatranj Ke Khiladi and in 1981, a 45-minute telefilm Sadgati for Doordarshan.

Bringing literature to the cinematic screen is a gargantuan task because of the difference between the ‘craft’ and ‘pace’ of both mediums — they essentially change plot and characters­­. This is precisely why filmmakers avoid coercive experiments. Despite this, some filmmakers have been adventurous enough to make ‘literary films’. Late Hindi poet and critic Kunwar Narayan in his book Lekhak ka Cinema had written:  ‘Cinema was closer to literature in its ‘early’ days. In the silent film era, more than 400 small and big films were made on Shakespeare’s plays.’ While this might not be true for films today, we see it being realised in Ray’s adaptation of Premchand.

Filming of signs in Sadgati

Take a look at Ray’s treatment of Premchand’s Sadgati, which is centred around the problem of casteism. The tight literary text seldom offers space for adaptation. In 1981, when Ray was filming the story, the real challenge was to present the original text and its symbolism through an augmented, cinematic lens. But he was successful in his interpretation. The ‘changes’ he made did not spoil the story, but instead brought to life the characters and words with a newness.

Consider the scene where Pandit Ghasiram’s (Mohan Agashe) forced labour, Dukhi (Om Puri), dies, and his wife Jhuria (Smita Patil), moans at the pandit’s doorstep. This was an emotional reaction not written in the original story. It shows how Ray’s changes give concrete shape to the scene while elevating Premchand’s symbolism.

In the original story, when Dukhi gets tired of tearing wood and has a need for chillum, he goes to a person from the Gond tribe. near Pandit Ghasiram’s house and asks for tamakhu (tobacco). But in Ray’s interpretation of the character, the scene has an air of sarcasm — a feat that even Premchand could not accomplish.

Ray incorporated local customs and traditions in his film too. He shot Sadgati in modern-day Raipur and incorporated its Dussehra ‘Ravan idol’ tradition in the film — a symbol Premchand places outside Pandit Ghasiram’s house.

Premchand’s story ends with a poignant scene — jackals, vultures, dogs and crows circle Dukhi’s dead body — a ‘reward’ for years of devotion, service and loyalty. Ray manages to make the dragging of Dukhi’s corpse a vivid and emotional scene by making optimum use of light, sound and shadow.

Clarity, dramatisation, illustration and symbolism emerge well in the art of Premchand and Satyajit Ray.


Also Read: Satyajit Ray: Cine maestro & literary genius who could say no to Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao


‘Distance’ from Premchand in Shatranj Ke Khiladi

That being said, Ray and Premchand weren’t always on the same wavelength. This was evident in Shatranj Ke Khiladi. The film focused more on Ray’s affinity towards Awadh, and less on Premchand’s original narrative. While Premchand used his protagonists to ultimately depict the downfall of Wajid Ali Shah and his hedonism, in stark contrast to the original plot, Ray chose to focus on the Nawabi culture of Awadh.

As Narayan, in his book, puts it: ‘In Sadgati Satyajit Ray walks with Premchand, while in Shatranj Ke Khiladi, he walks away from him… The Hindi language was a problem for Satyajit Ray, but it was also difficult to read the characters and scenes accurately in the same way that separates the cultural milieu of Bengal and Uttar Pradesh from each other. Satyajit Ray was also a little emotional about the Nawabi culture of Awadh,’ he wrote.

However, Ray’s version of Shatranj Ke Khiladi pays a beautiful tribute to Wajid Ali Shah’s Lucknow-full of delectable food, gorgeous women and ornate goods. As per Firstpost’s Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, the best part about Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi is its ‘world-building.’

While the difficulty of literary illustration gave rise to many questions, Ray always managed to hit the bull’s eye. That was his cinematic brilliance.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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