A character is as much the work of the director as it is of the actor, and Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari (1977) is a shining example of this. Released two years after Sholay, the film took some of the key players from Ramesh Sippy’s blockbuster and assigned them startlingly different roles. The casting choices were partially informed by the saleability factor of Bombay stars, but on Ray’s own terms. Shatranj ke Khilari had Amitabh Bachchan as the narrator of this adaptation of a Munshi Premchand short story; Sanjeev Kumar as Mirza, one of the two men (the other being Saeed Jaffrey) whose obsessive chess playing unfolds against the larger historical transition of the East India Company’s take over of Awadh; and Amjad Khan as Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab, who loses his kingdom to the English. Khan’s casting (a suggestion made by the film’s producer Suresh Jindal and one that Ray took, albeit with some initial scepticism) was key. To dissociate Khan from his screen history would be impossible for an Indian viewer, and just to see him cast against type was half the job done.
Few actors in Indian cinema are as synonymous with a screen persona as Khan is with Gabbar Singh, the archetypal, uncouth dacoit he plays in Sholay. The actor’s portrayal of the nawab in Ray’s only Hindi feature film is as antithetical to that image as is possible. Khan’s Wajid Ali Shah is a sad-eyed aesthete — the last of his kind — who would rather compose operas than counter-strategise against the cunning of the Company. Instead of pepping up his men to defend his fortress, he would rather sing a melancholy tune (‘Chhor aye hum Lucknow nagari…’, sung by the actor himself) while seated on his throne as the sun sets for the day and on his empire.
Almost as if to make a statement, a scene from Shatranj Ke Khilari plays out in stark contrast to Gabbar’s introductory scene in Sholay, which shows one of Hindi cinema’s baddest baddies in his natural habitat, among the boulders in the ravines of Ramgarh. Gabbar considers it a dent to his reputation (‘So ja varna Gabbar aa jayega’ [Go to sleep or Gabbar will get you]) that Ramgarh villagers saw three of his men being defeated by two (‘Kitne aadmi thhe?’ [How many men?]). His response is to unleash a sadistic game on his men, filling the screen with his terrifying, stereophonic laughter.
Khan’s Wajid Ali Shah, on the other hand, is seen in his pleasure palace, the royal court of Awadh, which is a far cry from a hideout of dacoits. We see the Nawab is still hurting from the news that the British have broken the pact they had made with his ancestors. He puts the blame, perhaps unreasonably, on his associates first, accusing them of draining the Royal treasury of mismanagement of funds. Eventually, the Nawab melts and softens, slowly shifting the blame on himself. He comes to the conclusion that at least he was an honest king to his people. While recalling better days, he fixates on the sound of the names of the paltans (banka, tircha, akhtari, nazreen, ghanghor), rather than their military strength, and the beauty of the Arab stallions they kept. He turns nostalgic when a song he had composed comes back to him, remembering the exact moment of its conception, when he zoned out of a courtroom session as a man pleaded before him. A complex personality unravels in full view, and Khan imbues the Nawab with the dreaminess of a Romantic, with occasional sparks of his dramatic dialogue delivery.
What Khan also brought to the part is a physical grace. The opening images of Khan as Wajid Ali Shah show him as Lord Krishna in a raas, in the company of gopis, hinting at an androgyny that General James Outram (Richard Attenborough) labels as “effeminate” later in the film when he ridicules the king for “dressing up as a Hindu god” and “wearing bells on his feet, like nautch girls”, blind to Wajid Ali Shah being an exponent of the dance form Kathak. Film scholars have said it’s possible to see in Ray’s characterisation of the Nawab, very different from how Premchand wrote him, a resistance to the Colonial binaries of sexuality.
At the time he took on the challenge of becoming Wajid Ali Shah, Khan was playing the larger-than-life villain in almost every Hindi commercial film. Following Sholay’s success, he was seen playing the bad guy twice in 1977 alone, in Naseeb and Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahi. Khan would remain Bollywood’s iconic villain, but he would also go on to appear in offbeat films such as Utsav (1984) and Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho (1984) in the future. Shatranj Ke Khilari, true to the parallel film movement going on in Hindi cinema at the time, showed Khan’s versatility, opened alternate possibilities, and remains a high-point in the actor’s career.