It is my friend Pierre who introduced me to the work of Satyajit Ray. Charulata (The Loney Wife) was the first film of him that I saw, at Pierre’s recommendation. Then I fell recently on an article written in one of my preferred magazines History Today by Andrew Robinson, author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye: The Biography of a Master Film-Maker about Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Player). It opened my interest, and I started to look for the film. Luckily I found the subtitled version on youTube.

source www.imdb.com

The Chess Players is the only film of Ray which ventures deep into a different culture – the one of the Muslim kingdom of Oudh, and is spoken in the Urdu language. Filmed on location in Lucknow it describes the end of the last Muslim fief in India in 1856, going deep into the social and cultural causes of the fall of the kingdom. It is a work of great psychological and cinematographic beauty, also the most expensive film ever made by Ray. The famous Indian writer V.S. Naipul was quoted comparing this film with a Shakespeare play, and the comparison is not exaggerated.

There are two apparently distinct threads in the film. One is the historical story of the deposing of the last king of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah (played by Amjad Khan). He is described in the film as a fascinating mix of corruption and sensitivity, of debauchery and resignation. Ray had ambivalent feelings to this character, which is on one side a symbol of the decay of remains of the Mogul empire, but on the other side has an internal dignity and continues a tradition and a way of life which is misjudged and completely mis-understood by his enemies. The opposing camp of the British is represented by general Outram (Richard Attenborough), the archetype of the colonial conqueror, misjudging and downplaying the culture of his opponents. The dialogs between the two are fascinating. They use a translator, and the translation is rigorously accurate. Yet, the true meaning gets often lost in translation. The dialog between cultures needs to take place much above the dictionary.

The second thread is the one of the chess players. Two friends, belonging to the aristocracy of the kingdom spend all their time, days and nights playing chess. They play it the old way, they are proud that the game invented in India (and not in Persia!) spread all over the world, and although they hear that the British had changed some rules they ignore the changes. By love for the game they ignore everything around – their affairs, their wives, the dangers that threaten their kingdom and mode of life. Chess becomes the central obsession of their lives and the central obsession of the film, a symbol of the tradition and refinement of their civilization, but also of the obsession and refuse to face the reality that leads to its loss. While spending time in fighting each others king, they fail to protect the real king and his kingdom. Sanjeev Kumar as Mirza Sajjad Ali and Saeed Jaffrey as Mir Roshan Ali are perfect in the two roles.

The cinematography of Ray is beautiful and refined as is the world that it describes. Many of the scenes are beautiful compositions, and when music and dance mix as it does in many Indian films it fits perfectly in the story and the ambiance of the court. The story of the takeover of the last Muslim kingdom of India by the British, with the passive complicity of the local nobility too busy to live its life of luxury and enjoy its preferred pleasures is forever cast in the images of this wonderful film.

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