Assessing colonial histories in complex, innovative, and visually interesting ways is never an easy task in a medium that demands obvious heroes and villains. But Satyajit Ray’s adaptation of Premchand’s short story achieves exactly this, showing irony, sharp wit, and even a drop of sympathy for its characters, regardless of how ineffectual, unengaged, or downright boorish they may be.
Set in Lucknow, the capital of Oudh, in 1856, on the eve of its annexation by Britain via the East India Company, The Chess Players marks a series of linguistic, regional, and stylistic departures for Ray. It is his first in the Hindi-Urdu commercial film industry, the first to use major stars, to contain expensive, elaborate sets, and to take place outside of a contemporary Bengali context. Unfortunately, I learned this and other background information through sources noted below, because Kino’s DVD is stingy in the “extras” department. Devoid of audio commentary, it offers only a selected filmography of Ray’s work (just as easily obtained by opening a copy of Suranjan Ganguly’s 2000 study of the filmmaker) and “original British poster art,” which turns out to be one measly poster for a screening in London’s West End. This is a shame, because there is hardly a dearth of interest in or scholarship on Indian cinema in general and Ray in particular.
The Chess Players (shatranj Ki Khilari)
Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Amjad Khan, Richard Attenborough
(Devki Chitra Productions)
US DVD: 18 Apr 2006
Still, the film is more than enough of a draw. Like its literary source, it centers on Mir (Saeed Jaffrey) and Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar), two wealthy landowners and chess fanatics; they lose entire days to game after game, neglecting their wives and all other aspects of their personal and political lives. After extensive historical research, Ray added another storyline to his adaptation, that of British General Outram (Richard Attenborough) and the nawab he is charged with deposing, King Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan). This helps to clarify the historical and political events Mir and Mirza block out and provides the film with some of its most remarkable narrative and visual material.
The Chess Players opens with scathing irony directed at not only the idle rich, but also the nawabs who acquiesce to increasing degrees of colonial rule and the gluttonous British colonizers seeking to devour every inch of India. The opening shot consists of a wide-angle close-up of a chess game against an entirely black background. One hand enters from the right to move a chess piece; it retreats; another enters from the left and makes an opposing move. As they make their moves, narrator Amitabh Bachchan’s rich voice directs us to look at “the hands of the mighty generals deploying their forces on the battlefield.” These hands may never have held real weapons, he says, “But this is not a real battle where blood is shed and the fate of empires is decided,” cementing the link between the men’s inaction and the British East India Company’s takeover of Oudh.
A cut to a full shot of Mir and Mirza, clad in luxurious fabrics and smoking, suggests they remain oblivious to the rest of the world. Ray blacks out the entire set, leaving just the men and their game in the foreground. So myopic is their vision, that when they call for a servant to refill their hookahs, he emerges from the darkened set, seemingly out of nowhere, nonexistent until he reaches them, before retreating back into obscurity.
Subsequent scenes showing Lucknow as a rich cultural city give way to a partial view of a throne, ceremoniously announced with the clash of cymbals. The narrator intones, “This is the throne of King Wajid, who ruled over Oudh,” the camera underlining his use of the past tense by pulling back to a shot of an empty throne. Bachchan explains that the king had interests besides ruling, and we see him engaged in various cultural and religious activities. Passionate about arts and culture, Wajid may be a bad king, but he is not malicious, merely disinterested.
But a leader’s disinterest can be disastrous for his subjects, and Ray makes clear the dangers of seeing politics with a “poetic” eye in a scene where Wajid learns that Outram is ready to invade Lucknow and seize possession of the crown. In one of the film’s most striking images, the king sits in the palace, flanked by his prime minister and a baron and bathed in the golden hues of twilight. When the two men state their willingness to fight the Company’s army, the king begins to sing, “When I leave my beloved Lucknow, I do not know how I shall bear the pain of parting…” The room becomes gradually darker, and the scene cuts from a close-up of the prime minister’s frowning face to one of the baron, who looks away from the king. When it’s revealed the Company will pay Wajid a “handsome allowance,” the risk of his preference for leisure over governance becomes abundantly clear.
Wajid, Mir, and Mirza do not bear the film’s criticism alone. Colonial greed is satirized in an animated sequence that uses Governor-General of India Lord Dalhousie’s description of Oudh as a “cherry that will drop into our mouths one day” against him. As the narrator wonders over Dalhousie’s extraordinary love of cherries, we see a cartoon Victorian man toss the cherries of Punjab, Burma, Nagpur, Satara, and Jhansi into his gaping mouth. Later, Oudh appears as a cake the nawabs offer to the British in slices, hoping to appease their endless appetites. Unlike Wajid, Outram has no interest in the arts. Instead, in a classically Victorian manner, he dismisses them as “feminine” endeavors, painting the colonized culture as decadent, effete, and in need of the British East India Company to “guide” it.
One of the strengths of The Chess Players is its willingness to complicate historical narratives and take an unflinching look at collusion between the colonizer and colonized elites. That it does this without losing sight of the cruelty, arrogance, and ignorance of the colonizer is no small victory. But the film is a lot like chess itself: viewers who find Ray’s pace too slow or his films too intellectual will not be won over, despite the all-star cast and high production values. Those who give The Chess Players the time it deserves (and who consult scholarly sources such as Ganguly’s book, Sumita Chakravarty’s analysis in National Identity and Indian Popular Cinema or Darius Cooper’s The Cinema of Satyajit Ray) will be rewarded.