In the past one month, I have added 3 more films to my list of Satyajit Ray movies watched – Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players, 1977), Nayak (The Hero, 1966) and Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970).
Each film is a masterpiece. All of them come from his post-Charulata period, where he moved away from his socially relevant films to a wider set of genres and a less intense tone.
“Shatranj Ke Khiladi” is the most tongue-in-cheek of the 3 films. I can imagine Mr. Ray making this film with a twinkle in his eye, enjoying the subject matter and the performances of Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey, as the two chess players intent on playing their daily game of chess. Interestingly, the core of the film – the antics of Kumar and Jaffrey – is just a sub-plot to the machinations of the British to have the ruler of the state removed from his throne. The characters played by Kumar and Jaffrey are minor noblemen who occasionally appear at the court of the ruler. In fact, there is just one scene in the entire film where they are actually seen at court with the ruler, thereby establishing the connection between the two plots.
I must make special mention of the outstanding and understated performance by Hindi film bad guy Amjad Khan as the effeminate and ineffectual ruler of Oudh. A ruler only through the accident of birth, he is much more at home appreciating the fine arts, than focusing on affairs of state – a fact that is continuously brought up by the British General who is responsible for enforcing his abdication. If ever a single film captured the essence of how the British expanded their colonization of India, it is this one. Most of the Indian ruling class couldn’t be bothered with what the British were up to, as long as they were allowed to live their lives of luxury. The film is based on a short story of the same name by Munshi Premchand, one of India’s foremost writers of popular literature of the early 20th century.
“Nayak” is an insightful look into the life of celebrity, expertly told over the course of an overnight train journey from Calcutta to New Delhi. This film is based on an original screenplay by Mr. Ray. As one can imagine, setting the film on a train gives Mr. Ray the opportunity to populate the story with many interesting characters. While not all of them interact directly with the titular protagonist, their stories play out as a colorful background to the journey of self-exploration undertaken by the actor, in parallel with his train journey. This introspection is triggered by the attempts of a magazine editor to surreptitiously gain an interview with the actor to publish in her next issue. Their discussions take place over multiple meetings in the dining car, each meeting resulting in the editor (charmingly played by Sharmila Tagore) getting further and further past the mask of his public persona. In turn, the actor (played to perfection by Uttam Kumar) becomes increasingly attracted to and intrigued by this ingenuous young writer. The other characters on the train expertly serve to fill the gaps and move the story forward.
“Aranyer Din Ratri” is a sort of road trip, once again a journey of self-exploration for 4 somewhat callow and self-possessed young men on a forest trip from the city. Here Mr. Ray gives us glimpses into the psyche of the Indian middle and upper-middle class (hasn’t really changed in the 40 years since the film was made) – a sense of entitlement and a belief that money and contacts are good enough to bypass rules and regulations. The 4 friends bully the watchman of a forest department rest house to ‘rent’ it out to them, even though they have no official authorization to stay on government property. Their intention is to ‘chill out’ away from the city, but change their minds and decide to become sociable when they discover that a nearby bungalow is occupied by a wealthy retired man, his daughter and widowed daughter-in-law (both attractive young women) and grandson. In the course of the next few days, their interactions with the women, with the villagers and with the forest dept. officials all serve to showcase the psyche of each of the men. In turn, these events and conversations force the men to examine their beliefs, their fears and their value systems. They return to the city, each a wiser man in his own way.
After each film, I was left amazed at how Satyajit Ray was able to turn the most mundane and ordinary of situations into stories of human insight that I could relate to. I suppose it comes from a deep understanding of what makes ordinary people tick.