“The Chess Players” - Satyajit Ray (1977)

The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khiladi, 1977) was something of a departure for writer-director Satyajit Ray, since it was a relatively big-budget Hindi-language film [1] and Ray’s first feature film made in a language other than his native Bengali. Stylistically, it also had elements of the broad style of acting that typically features in mainstream Hindi cinema. But even operating in this genre, Ray had his unique contributions to make.

The narrative of The Chess Players is based on Munshi Premchand’s 1924 short story of the same name about two 19th century upper-class Indian aristocrats whose obsession with the game of chess causes them to neglect everything going on around them.  Ray added a parallel thread to the story that covers the historical background concerning the political turmoil of the time (1856) and places things more firmly in a social context.

The setting is Lucknow, the capital of the wealthy Oudh (Awadh) province, an area in Uttar Pradesh.  At this time of 1856, which was a year before the upheaval associated with the Sepoy Rebellion (Indian Mutiny), the British Raj, through the instrument of the East Indian Tea Company, was angling to take over more and more of the Indian provinces.  The Oudh province was one of the last holdouts and still semi-independent – as long as it continued to pay off the British overlords with large stipends. In fact Oudh’s independence was formalized by a treaty signed by the British in 1801, but their principal operative in this story, General James Outram, had the intention of forcing the current ruler, Wajid Ali Shah, to abdicate. 

The story of The Chess Players thus has three separate theaters of action, i.e. three focalizations:
  • The royal court of the Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan), who is the ruler of Oudh
  • The offices of British General James Outram (Richard Attenborough)
  • The domestic concerns of the two avid chess players, Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey)

Rarely do these three theaters come in contact during the film, but on a thematic level they are intertwined.  They ostensibly tell a straightforward story of how self-indulgence and decadence on the part of the Indian upper class allowed the relatively small (compared to India) contingent of British invaders to take over an entire subcontinent.  The Indian upper class are portrayed as effete and almost degenerate, while the British are portrayed as disciplined, vigorous, and pragmatic.  After all, as one of the Indians in this story points out, the British have introduced the railroad and the telegraph to India – two revolutionary developments of the modern age.  But Ray’s portrayal of this story adds another layer of subtlety to all of this.  By the end of the film, one sees that the Indian cultural side has its virtues, too. 

The film opens with a coverage of the historical backdrop concerning the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.  It then shifts to a discussion about the Nawab that General Outram has with his assistant, Captain Weston, who speaks Urdu and appreciates Indian culture. Weston describes Wajid as an accomplished poet, singer, dancer, and playwright – in short, a most unusual ruler.  But on hearing this the outraged Outram issues his counter opinion: Wajid is “a bad king, a frivolous, effeminate, irresponsible, worthless king.”  For Outram, Wajid should be attending to administering his state, and Weston’s characterization confirms his view that Wajid should be replaced by “responsible” British rule.

Then the action shifts to the two chess players. They are wealthy and indolent, and they seem to have nothing to do other than play chess at all hours of the day. This part of the film is portrayed in the farcical manner typical of low Hindi comedy, with the two somewhat chubby and over-dressed chess players smirking and bickering their way through the chess play.  Any interruptions to their games are only annoyances, but they do take time out to learn from a friend that these British modernizers have even had the temerity to modernize the game of chess, itself.  Their version of the game alters the rules somewhat in order to make the game move a little faster. 

Of course, there has to be space for some domestic shenanigans, and we see that both Mirza Sajjad and Mir Roshan have neglected their attractive and sensuous wives and left them unsatisfied (the two wives have different strategies for dealing with that frustration).  When one of the wives steals their chess players, Mir and Mirza simply resort to playing the game by substituting the pieces with food items taken from the kitchen table.

Meanwhile we also follow the activities of the supreme aesthete, Wajid Ali Shah.  He is no ordinary aesthete, because he also abjures alcohol and prays to God five times a day. General Outram issues him an ultimatum that he must abdicate his kingship or face violence.  Of course violence in this case would involve a battle mostly between British-commanded Indian sepoys and Indian troops under the command of the Nawab – in other words, Indians against Indians.  Wajid is placed in an impossible position: either he must submit to the dishonor of abandoning his position (and thus abandoning his people) or submit to violence (which he abhors).  His world is not one of force, it is one of divine beauty, as exemplified by the lengthy dance of a beautiful Nautch girl who performs gracefully before the king (my favorite scene in the film).

In the end Wajid, the true and committed pacifist [2], succumbs to the British demands. He orders his troops to disarm and submit to British rule. 

While this is happening and anticipating some sort of political disruption, Mir Roshan and Mirza Sajjad have fled their two houses (with their troublesome wives) and gone across the river to continue their chess play.  Looking for a mosque, they only find an abandoned villa, but that’s good enough for them to start up another game.  However, when Mir Roshan makes a winning play and rudely crows about of his triumph, Mirza Sajjad taunts his boastful rival by revealing a secret he has recently learned from his own wife – that Mir Roshan is a cuckold.  Unable to take this humiliation, Mir Roshan draws his pistol and takes aim at his friend, but just misses his target when they are suddently interrupted by a local attendant announcing that the British have just taken over the Lucknow palace.

Mir Roshan then disconsolately walks away in disgust.  But after awhile he returns and wonders what he should do with his life now.  Mirza Sajjad, who has already forgiven his friend’s threat on his life, invites Mir Roshan to sit down with him again and start another game of chess.  This time, he suggests in the closing scene of the film, they can play the speedier British version of the game.

When you watch The Chess Players, you may become distracted by some of the conventional theatrics.  This is, after all, very much of a costume drama.  In fact the cinematography is not as deft as I have seen it in other Ray films.  The high-key lighting demands for this color film and this genre may perhaps have interfered with some of the camera setups.  In addition, there are a number of awkward zoom shots that are relatively obtrusive.  However, despite the genre-based histrionics, I believe Ray made an effort to present authentic historical accuracy –  even Amjad Khan actually looks like portraits I have seen of Wajid Ali Shah. 

This leads me to what I think was Satyajit Ray’s primary contribution to this story – the humanistic presentations of the principal personages. In particular, I gradually warmed up to the performances of Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey in the roles of the two chess players. As you watch these two innocent game addicts, you are reminded of how many of us fritter away our own time with vicarious obsessive diversions, whether it is watching entertainment, attending sports games, or playing with our smartphones. So a smug attitude towards the depicted chess players here is not really appropriate. As Jared Diamond has tellingly pointed out, we denizens of the modern world have no cause to feel personal pride with respect to our modernized world [3]. We are no smarter or more diligent than other people in the world. The reality is that we are all mostly free-riders who are taking advantage of the slowly accumulated technical resources provided by modern technology over the last few hundred years.  It is not so much that we are more industrious and hardworking than our ancestors, but that we function together into a very functional framework that has been built up over time. And within this framework we do need space for people who can promote more harmonious and fulfilling interactions, as to a certain extent, Wajid Ali Shah tried to do.

Viewing things from this angle, we could say that the Indians shown in The Chess Players are somewhat similar to and no less worthy than our own present-day somewhat dilettantish intellectuals. In fact these cultured Indians are superior, because both the two chess players, as well as Wajid Ali Shah, are devoted to aesthetic experiences beyond brute material accumulation. And their overriding instincts are to avoid conflict, disharmony, and violence. The relentless drive for order evinced by people like General James Outram does have its merits, but that is only a means to a higher end.

  1. Urdu, the language of the royal court in Lucknow at the time, is also used in the film.
  2. See the article by Kathy Kelly, "This Way: A Review of David Swanson's New Text on War and the Search for Peace", Truthout, (1 October 2013).
  3. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), W. W. N orton & Co.

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