‘Produce a film if you feel you will die if you don’t make that film. It was like that with me, with Ray’
The only time Satyajit Ray worked with a rookie producer was in Shatranj ke Khilari. On Ray’s 97th birth anniversary, Suresh Jindal reveals the give and take of their relationship, and unknown facets of Ray, the man and the collaboratorUpdated: May 12, 2018 09:46 IST
Suresh Jindal has been the producer of some of the best known art-house films in India. As a 33-year-old, he was a rookie producer whom Satyajit Ray, an icon among Indian filmmakers, trusted with his first Hindi film based on a short story by Munshi Premchand. Jindal backed other notable films – Rajnigandha, Katha and Gandhi. By the ’90s, his interest in Buddhism made him focus on exploring his spiritual side. In 2013, he was back with a film, Vara: A Blessing. In 2017, he wrote a book on the making of Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari.
How did you, an electrical engineer in the US, get interested in the business of cinema?
I grew up in Delhi and was born in Punjab. Maler Kotla, a city in the Sangrur district of Punjab, is an important place in Sikh history and the only Muslim pocket in Indian Punjab. Actor Saeed Jaffrey’s father was the Diwan of the Nawab of Maler Kotla. [Dharmendra worked nearby in a tubewell company.] I was born in a business family; in the ’60s, I was studying engineering in UCLA in the US. One of my roomies was a student at its film school; Francis Ford Coppola was his contemporary.
In America, the hippie era was taking off and California was its centre. The Beatniks opened stores on the Santa Monica Boulevard, put up chairs on the shop-front, got a projector and began screening some of the world’s best art-house cinema of the time. Along with the Fellinis, Kurosawas and Bergmans, I suddenly came across a film made by a filmmaker of my own country - Satyajit Ray. That film was Jalsaghar. [Made in 1958, it was Ray’s fourth feature and was based on the last days of a landlord in rural Bengal who tries to keep up with the appearance of social prestige.]
Why did you want to be a film producer, a job you knew nothing of?
No one in my family was even remotely connected with films. My family wanted me to start a factory. I did. Whenever people heard I was an electrical engineer, they would go into their bedrooms and bring out their radio sets and ask me to fix them! I realised I just wasn’t made for that kind of life. Art-house cinema had also started being produced in India. The Film Finance Corporation, NFDC’s predecessor, had just financed Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome. I read the reviews of Basu Chatterjee’s Piya ka Ghar. Before Ray, I actually produced Basu’s Rajnigandha.
How did Rajnigandha happen?
I met Basu Chatterjee and told him I wanted to produce a film but had no idea how to do it. He gave me four treatments (synopsis describing storyline and characters) and asked me if I liked any of them. I said I liked Rajnigandha, based on Mannu Bhandari’s short story, Yahi Sach Hai. This was about a girl, who even though engaged to another, is torn for a while between him and her old boyfriend – not a syrupy story at all and quite radical for its times. Basu was upfront, he told me three producers had come to him, given him a signing amount and not returned. I said this is the one I want to make.
This was Amol Palekar’s first film. Was he the first choice?
Shashi [Kapoor] was big bananas at the time, a big star. And he was a charmer. He knew we couldn’t pay his fees so when we approached him, the way he put it was: ‘My film has a fixed rate at which it sells per territory so please don’t sell it below that.’ So we were back to square one – looking for the lead actor. Amol was a well-known stage actor. And he was actually working at the time as a bank clerk, which was the role we wanted him to play. So that nailed it for us. It was also Vidya Sinha’s first film.
How did you get to meet Ray?
Ray gave a convocation address at the FTII in 1974. Reading about it in the papers, I realised he was a director who cared about having an audience and, in fact, might be wanting to make a film for a larger audience.... And Ray, remember, had excited me to a pitch when I had seen his films in America. I requested Tinnu Anand, who had been a Ray assistant , and who was like family to me, to introduce me. I told Tinnu: I’ve made a lot of money lately [Rajnigandha had been the sleeper hit of 1974 and was running to packed houses.] I don’t need another blockbuster.... All I want is to work with the great man...in any language. The night before he agreed to meet me, I could barely sleep.
Who had been his other producers? Why did he not approach them for Shatranj…?
Pather Panchali had been produced by the West Bengal government. RD Bansal had produced six of his films. A Nepali producer settled in Calcutta had produced three. Perhaps it was the Tinnu connection and that I had produced a film in Bombay that had done well…. Ray was going to make Shatranj ke Khilari in Hindi. This was his first film in Hindi. If I want to make a Hollywood film I would like to take a Hollywood producer, right?
Did you have an influence on the casting?
Amjad Khan [he played Nawab of Awadh] and Shabana Azmi [Khurshid, the wife of Mirza played by Sanjeev Kumar] were my suggestions. And Ray accepted the suggestions. With him, there was no question of ego at all. I also remember wanting to push Jalal Agha, who was my friend, for a role. Ray said ‘I want his dad.’ He also wanted Farooque Sheikh for a role. He asked me, “Have you seen the boy who comes at the end of Garam Hawa?” Howsoever small a role, if an actor had been good in a film, he would remember. So we arranged a meeting between Ray and Farooque. Farooque was hesitant as he had been offered a lead role in another film (Yash Chopra’s Noorie) and his advisers had told him he shouldn’t be typecast as a bit actor now that he was going to play the lead. I told him, “If you get two scenes with a director as great as Ray, it’s a risk worth taking. I don’t think it’s going to hurt your career. But it’s up to you.”
Was Ray’s an overwhelming presence as a director?
He was a tall man with a deep voice. He could seem intimidating. But he was actually a very shy man who was most happy in his world. His actors worshipped him. After giving a shot they would say – ‘Dada, was it ok’? And Ray would get the okays of the cameraman and the sound technicians. And then he would softly ask the actor, “Will you do another one for me?” What could you do? You’d melt....
I believe he had feelers from Hollywood for roles in his films.
James Mason (of Lolita and North by Northwest fame) wanted to work with him. When we approached Richard Attenborough for the role of General Outram, he was editing his own film, A Bridge Too Far. Ray told him, “Let me warn you, it’s not a big role.” And do you know what he said? “Satyajit, for you I am willing to read the telephone directory.” And I thought this is what artists are like. He shut his editing for one-and-a-half weeks to act in Ray’s film, which was a huge gesture. Many people from Hollywood said they wanted to work with Ray but this was an expression of putting your money where your mouth is.
You went on to be a co-producer of Attenborough’s Gandhi. Naseeruddin Shah has always been cut up about not getting to play Gandhi.
We flew Naseer to London so he was definitely considered. But how do you match Ben Kingsley? He was a Shakespearean actor and he was half Gujrati. As far as looks go, no one could come close. Even Marlon Brando was interested; he did the screen test at his own cost.
You worked with Naseer in Sai Paranjype’s Katha. What were Sai’s strengths as a director?
Not just with Naseer, but also with Farooque and Mallika Sarabhai, whom we had considered for Vidya Sinha’s role in Rajnigandha. Sai was a disciplined and determined director. She has solid background in theatre.
You were also the executive producer of Mani Kaul’s Naukar ki Kameez.
Mani was a great visual master and a master editor but as I would constantly tell him – why the hell don’t you work with a script? I got a script written by Jean-Claude Carrière (the French novelist who had written for most of Luis Bunuel’s films, including Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) which Mani would make on the Mahabharata. But Mani wasn’t comfortable. His was just a different kind of filmmaking.
What went wrong between you and Ray during the making of Shatranj…?
Filmmaking is intense. You have 200 people with different talents and baggages coming together for one purpose – to create something. There has been no film where the director and producer have not fought; it’s part of filmmaking. In India the producer, unlike in Hollywood, is a doormat. He is considered a moron and a goonda. It’s almost a caste thing. There were people in the team who wanted to drive a wedge between me and Ray. I was 33 years old then. I can look at it differently now. But we sorted it out. We were going to make another film based on Mahasweta Devi’s story, Beej. But after Shatranj…, while making Ghare Baire, he got a heart attack and doctors advised him not to travel out of Calcutta. All his later films – Shakha Prosakha, 1990 (except for one scene), Ganashotru, 1990, and Agantuk, 1991 – were shot in a Calcutta studio. Beej would have required travel.
There were rumours of Ray’s film being sabotaged.
Two nights before Shatranj ke Khilari’s release, the distributors said they wouldn’t be selling the film. It took a long time to break even. In the long run, I made my money from overseas sales. But let it be. All that happened 40 years ago.
Sanjeev Kumar apparently was upset at not being allowed to dub for his scenes.
In those days, every film was post-dubbed as there was no equipment with sync sound. Rajnigandha, Katha were all dubbed. Actors were used to giving expression with their voice in the dubbing studio. Sanjeev told me when everyone saw his rough cut in Sholay, they were disappointed but after the dubbing they were astounded. You see Urdu was not his language like Saeed Jaffrey’s was. But Manikda (Ray) said it was not necessary. He probably knew better. I told Sanjeev later that I haven’t heard anyone complain about his performance. I asked him, “Has anyone said, ‘Saeed aap ko kha gaya?’ (Saeed has upstaged you?).”
What are you working on next?
I am working on a book.
What is your advice for anyone wanting to produce a film?
Do it only if you feel you will die if you don’t make that film. It was like that with me, with Ray.