Amongst other things, filmmaking suffers from a debased tradition where egos of people big or small often stand in the way of something ordinary translating into great art. Maybe that is the reason why film memoirs need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Yet when the author happens to be a film producer, the chances of the truthfulness increase, as they are usually the ones who end up being in the middle of all things wonderful or pathetic — depending on how one opts to view things. Moreover, when the producer happens to be someone like a Suresh Jindal, who has been at the forefront of three important films that perhaps define three great milestones in the history of Indian as well as world cinema then, needless to say, what he talks about becomes akin to going to a film school.
As the man who produced Rajnigandha (1975), the surprise hit that ushered in the phase of the middle cinema in India, Jindal’s great achievement could be producing Gandhi (1982). But his greatest achievement undoubtedly is Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), which was Satyajit Ray’s only Hindi film. The book My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of Shatranj Ke Khilari (HarperCollins, 2017) is a gripping account of how Ray came to direct the film despite his unequivocal declaration that he would never write and direct a film that was not in Bengali.
While there have many books about the making of great films such as Casablanca, Citizen Cane or Ray’s own Pather Panchali or accounts of films that missed their mark, finished careers and even brought down studios such Steven Bach’s brilliant Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists (1999), what makes Jindal’s account of the making of Shatranj Ke Khilari worth reading is the unique manner in which he gives an insight into the mind of the maestro Satyajit Ray. Quoting extensively from Ray’s fascinating unpublished letters to Jindal, the narrative jumps between a first-person account and the correspondence between the rookie producer and a legendary filmmaker. Jindal uses the letters he and Ray exchanged chronologically and one gets a clear sense of what it took to give shape to a film based on a short story by Munshi Premchand and the trials, yes there were many, that both Ray and Jindal underwent in creating the period drama that revolved around the East India Company’s avaricious annexation of Oudh in 1856.
Jindal’s passionate account joins the ranks of Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, a brilliant book on the process of filmmaking. Like Lumet, who loved movies and wrote with same passion as his filmmaking, Jindal also sheds light on the mood of the industry in the mid 1970s where his Rajnigandha practically invented a new genre in Hindi cinema and the “bureaucratic shilly-shallying”, the term Ray used to describe the government’s process of giving a license so that a film could be sent to a festival, that filmmakers suffered back in the day. But the book’s true brilliance comes about in the manner it highlights the process of filmmaking and the alchemy between two different schools of filmmaking and two different generations of artists without losing the non-film conversant reader.
In the initial part of the book where the film, which was Ray’s most expensive production, is getting delayed it’s the young producer who is losing faith and patience but Ray calms him down, and inspires him with sage advice. Once the film is complete the lack of enthusiasm from distributors considering it’s an ‘art film’ and the miscommunication between Ray and Jindal (where some people even tried to disrupt the film’s release) had sapped the auteur of his energy but it’s here that the younger producer lifts Ray’s spirits. It’s one thing to write such an account but letters between Ray and Jindal build this organically and that is why reading a line like — “It is not in my nature to wallow in self-pity” — that Jindal writes to Ray as a call to action, resonates greatly. In the same letter that Jindal sent to Ray in November 1977, he writes “It is not only the established mafia that is against Shatranj; there is also a section of the artsy-craftsy, culture-vulture crowd who consider themselves to be the arbitrators of taste in cinema. But in front of Shatranj, to use Mao’s phrase, they are paper tigers. We will definitely win.”
Very few filmmakers have managed to elevate cinema to an art form the way Satyajit Ray. While being perhaps one of the most accessible of his films, Shatranj Ke Khilari has also been in the shadow of some of his other works. Moreover, this is not an easy book to write for it also bares some of the inner demons, or even the pettiness or ego, that engulf creative people in the course of a project and in that aspect, Jindal’s book does a great service to both Ray’s craft, deviation to detail to every single aspect of the filmmaking as well as his own vision. The sheer audacity of the artistically inclined young man that saw him ask his friend Tinnu Anand, who had assistant Ray for six years, to pick the phone and ask the iconic filmmaker that he was keen to produce his first Hindi film should he want to make one is the same that comes across. With a foreword by Jean-Claude Carrière, writer and a frequent collaborator with Luis Buñuel and an introduction by Andrew Robinson, whose book Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye remains one of the best studies of the filmmaker, My Adventures with Satyajit Ray: The Making of Shatranj Ke Khilari is a must-read for anyone who truly loves movies.