On Satyajit Ray’s birthday, remembering dignified criticism of historical films

Satyajit Ray was born today, 2 May, in 1921. This year, his birthday comes in the wake of the controversy surrounding the film Padmavaat (initially named Padmavati). Controversy is a euphemism for vandalism of a film set, physical attacks on school buses, hours and hours of fruitless television debates over Rajput honour, and even a suicide.

While this is an unfortunate situation, it is imporant to remember that a few decades ago, criticism of a historical film was more a dignified and intellectually rigorous excercise. I have in mind the criticism that Satyajit Ray received for the depiction of Wajid Ali Shah in his film Satranj ke Khiladi. The film, as is well known, was based on Ray’s interpretation of Premchand’s story of the same name. However, it straddled a fictional story with the added challenge of visualising actual historical events. 

On October 22, 1978, Rajbans Khanna wrote a review of the film in The Illustrated Weekly of India, “Ray’s Wajid Ali Shah.”. Following this, Ray wrote a defence of the film, “My Wajid Ali is not ‘Effete and Effeminate’". Ray went on to make a list, in six points, the principle sources he had consulted before the making of the film. The meticulous planning that went into the making film is evident from these photographs sourced from the shooting notebooks, now available in the book, My Adventures with Satyajit Ray, written by the producer of the film, Suresh Jindal.



Ray does not just limit his defence to his research prior to the shooting. He also defends the film citing specific scenes he has shot. Here are two such scenes he lists:

In the scene between Outram and Fayrer, Outram admits the contradictions in Wajid's character (devout man, doesn't drink, sings, dances, versifies, etc), which is why he cannot predict the outcome of the proposed interview.

In the scene of Outram's interview with the Queen Mother, Aulea Begum refuses to intercede for Outram to get her son to sign the treaty. "My son has never acted against the Company's interests," she says.

Where, in all this, is the effeminacy? And is this Wajid not complex enough, not contradictory enough? Characterwise, what more could one have done in a full-fledged biography?

(Ray arrived at some of these scenes, however, after much deliberation. Below, we publish an extract from a letter to Jindal where he admits he has been considering  shelving the project altogether.)  

Khanna, however, was not convinced. On January 6, 1979, he wrote another sharp rejoinder, “Ray has Missed the Woods for the Trees”. He quotes the historian Malleson to refer to, what he calls, historical inconsistencies.

Ray’s first response and this rejoinder can be read here.

Readers can choose whose side they choose to be on. What is important is to remember that criticism of historical films, based on the question of historical veracity, can be sharp and, even unforgiving. But it need not be violent. It can also be an intellectually rigorous exercise — an attitude that we seem to have forgotten a mere four decades after the debate was originally published in print.




18 April ’76


Dear Suresh,

Many thanks for your letter. The books arrived safely. A most useful bunch, and a most generous gift for which I am truly grateful. I hope you wont make a habit of this kind of generosity; it’s a trait that a film producer must learn to do without!

Your letter presents the financial aspects of the production very clearly. Although I hadnt worked out the details myself, I had a hunch that this is what it would look like on paper. It only serves to strengthen the feeling that we havent perhaps made the ideal choice in The Chess Players. It must be clea