Chess Players , The (1977)

Director: Satyajit Ray

Stars: Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Richard Attenborough

Release Company: Kino Video

MPAA Rating: NR

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Satyajit Ray: The Chess Players


India's 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 and The Music Room be far behind?

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