premiere filmmaker Satyajit
Ray mixes genres in his highly allegorical Shatranj
Ke Khilari (The Chess Players).
Among his later films, this 1977 project combines
a comedy of manners with historical drama, as it
examines the 1856 British takeover of India. It
even weaves an animation sequence into the historical
portion, and includes traditional Indian song and
dance in other sequences.
Using chess as an obvious
metaphor, an opening narration describes how the
board warfare bloodlessly ends when the king is
trapped without a viable move. Two Indian Muslim
landlord friends obsessively continue their chess
games in oblivion, letting their personal lives
and political lives radically change around them.
Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar) decides that his home is no
longer suitable to play chess after his neglected
wife steals the pieces and Mir (Saeed Jaffrey) is
being cuckolded by his nephew, explaining why his
wife is so eager for him to play the royal game
at all hours.
Early in the film Mirza
and Mir learn from an elder (Nandlal) that chess
was originally an Indian invention (other theories
hold that the game has Persian roots), but the British
have adopted chess and changed the rules to make
for faster play—including modern rules that allow
the pawn to move two squares initially and to transform
into a queen if it reaches the eighth rank of the
opponent. Most significantly, the most powerful
piece is no longer an “Indian” prime minister but
a queen (Victoria). Although the two chess buddies
think it silly to change the rules of the game,
their attitudes adapt after the takeover.
Balancing the comedy are
historical sequences that show General Outram (Richard
Attenborough) deciding to violate the British treaty
and take over because he sees the kingdom ripe for
picking due to its incompetent king. This illustrates
a clash in values, as the British concern themselves
with industry and development while King Wajid (Amjad
Khan) devotes himself to hedonistic pleasures--women,
dancing, and singing. He demonstrates remorse for
his weakness as a ruler when learning about the
British plans, and he wisely decides to abdicate
his crown to avoid bloodshed. That neglects historical
realities about the actual war, but Ray
isn't gunning for that type of reality in his allegory.
This is a rare Technicolor
work from Ray,
and the most striking scene is the musical dancing
sequence showcasing a rich blend of earthy reddish
tones with exquisite golds and ocher. This beautifully
filmed scene by itself makes the film worth checking
out. This comes as no surprise since Ray is well
known for his musical composition and for recording
poetic depictions of Indian tradition.
The Chess Players
doesn't represent Ray's
best work, but completists will be compelled to
see this project. The excessive narration and overly
staged acting differs from his free flowing depictions
of rural and contemporary Indian life that resonate
on deeper levels. Very few of Ray's
wonderful canon are currently available on DVD,
so Kino Video is to be commended for its presentation.
Hopefully, this signals future releases of stronger
films by the legendary director. With a minor work
like this getting the DVD treatment, can Charulata
Music Room be far behind?