The British Heritage in India like on most of the Bengali intelligentsia had a mixed effect on Satyajit Ray too. In an interview with his biographer, Andrew Robinson, Ray said, “I think many of us owe a great deal to it (The British Heritage). I’m thankful for the fact that at least I’m familiar with both cultures and it gives me a very much stronger footing as a filmmaker, but I am also aware of all the dirty things that were being done. I really don’t know how I feel about it.” Robinson himself is of the opinion that the opportunity to probe some of these deep equivocations in himself drew Ray to make Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players by Satyajit Ray).
This made him choose Munshi Premchand’s Shatranj Ke Khilari as his next project in 1974. Munshi Premchand in his story very cleverly draws a parallel between the chess games and crafty moves of the British to capture Awadh. Ray, retaining the two main characters of the chess players, also added some characters in his screenplay. The characters of Wajid Ali Shah and General Outram were extended.
But according to Ray himself, there were many obstacles which had to overcome. First and most important was that Chess was not a game that could create drama on screen. Being an avid Chess player helped him as he knew the moves well and that’s why was able to create a screenplay around the obsession and the moves. The second obstacle was as important as the first one; to him, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was a despicable character because of his numerous sexual relations and amorous escapades with servants and courtesans. As he became more familiar with his history the hate grew in proportions. His co-writer Shama Zaidi (Urdu dialogues) confirms that in many letters in the course of researching about the king, Ray wrote to her that he felt like giving up the film altogether because he would not be able to make a film on a character with whom he doesn’t sympathize. But after some more research, as told to Robinson, he saw the king as an artist, a poet, a composer with some contributions to the art. This helped him in visualizing the king’s character for his film.
The Chess Players had two parallel stories. One is of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) and how he is played as a pawn by the British Resident Officer General Outram (Richard Attenborough). The second story is of two Jagirdars of the Nawab, Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey), who are some kind of maniacs about playing Chess. Mirza and Mir care for absolutely nothing, neither for their wives nor for the political upheaval in their province, Awadh. They are just obsessed with playing Chess anywhere at any cost. The apathy of the ruling dispensation towards its subjects is presented through this aspect of the personalities of these two central characters. Ray successfully presents the irony making it somewhat funny at few places. These two are busy in playing Chess and Awadh is being annexed by the British in another game that is somewhat similar to Chess.
The Chess Players is not a usual Satyajit Ray film. To begin with, it was his first non-Bengali film. He wrote the screenplay and the English dialogues but for the dialogues in Urdu, he had to take help of Shama Zaidi and Javed Siddiqui. The duo has done a great job but the difference in standards is more than visible. V. S. Naipaul was prompted by the conversation between General Outram and Captain Weston (Tom Alter) to comment, “It is like a Shakespeare scene. Only 300 words are spoken but goodness! Terrific things happen.”
The next unusual thing- the budget, it was Ray’s most expensive film. Unlike Ray, large Mughal style sets were prepared and exotic locations like Lucknow and Rajasthan were used for outdoor shooting. It was the first and only time Ray was dealing with Islamic culture and it can be categorized as a period film, that too first and last for Ray. For the first time, Ray worked with artists from the Bombay Industry. All the actors were terrific including Shabana Azmi in a cameo as Mirza’s wife and Farukh Sheikh as Mir’s wife’s lover. Farida Jalal in one Scene as Mir’s wife was also terrific.
On one point many would disagree but I am compelled to say this. Satyajit Ray, ‘the Auteur’ was missing in this film. Maybe I felt so because of the absence of his regular actors or the language of the film, but I must say Munshi Premchand was also visibly present throughout the whole film. For a person who knows Premchand equally well as Satyajit Ray, it’s quite obvious that the characters are purely Premchand’s and the treatment was of Ray.
One more unusual thing that I found while watching the film was the two stories seemed completely unconnected, detached. King’s story has absolutely no connection with these two Jagirdars obsessed with Chess. But when in the climax Mir Roshan Ali said ironically, “We can’t even cope with our wives, so how can we cope with the Company’s Army?” it became clear to me that the two stories are the same. Mirza and Mir’s story explains what is happening in the King’s story. It became clear that Ray wants to portray that the takeover of India by the British, in many cases, was the result of the noninvolvement of our own kings.
Interestingly, this film was made during the Emergency, the darkest period in the history of Indian Democracy. Some critics also feel that the imposition of Emergency was also the result of initial non-involvement of the important people like Mirza and Mir and this was the message that Ray wanted to give through this Film.
The Critics, Indian and Western both, found the film quite lighter and Ray’s treatment of the subject quite mild. They felt the need of a villain in the form of British General Outram, at least.
Defending The Chess Players against the accusation that it did not condemn historical evils, he remarked:
“Easy targets don’t interest me very much. The condemnation is there, ultimately, but the process of arriving at it is different. I was portraying two negative forces, feudalism, and colonialism. You had to condemn both Wajid and Dalhousie. This was the challenge. I wanted to make this condemnation interesting by bringing in certain plus points of both the sides. You have to read this film between the lines.”
You can watch the complete film here: