Reviews

The Chess Players (Shatranj ki Khilari) (1977)

Jessica Scarlata

The Chess Players complicates historical narratives and takes an unflinching look at collusion between the colonizer and colonized elites.


The Chess Players (shatranj Ki Khilari)

Director: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Amjad Khan, Richard Attenborough
Distributor: Kino Video
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Devki Chitra Productions
First date: 1977
US DVD Release Date: 2006-04-18
Amazon affiliate

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.

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.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.