Satyajit Ray’s gently satiric parable The Chess Players reminds us that, in the days before America’s machinations in Iraq, we had the British East India Company running roughshod in much same way in India. Ray opens his movie with a documentary-style recap of the Company’s mid-19th century wheeling-dealing in Oudh, a wealthy province in northeastern India. The Company had Oudh’s king, Wajid Ali Shah, by the balls: If the king agreed to finance the Company’s regional ambitions, and even supply it with necessary troops, it wouldn’t meddle in or usurp the king’s power. By 1856, though, the British, eager to fatten their imperial coffers, broke their détente with King Wajid, and instructed their local operative, General Outram, to do whatever it takes to roll into Oudh and take charge.
The Chess Players was something of a departure for Ray: Aside from its large budget—at least by Ray’s standards—and use of popular Bombay actors, it was also his first and only foray into a culture and language outside his native Bengal, namely the Mogul, Urdu-speaking enclave of Lucknow, the capitol of Oudh. Yet, for all its challenges, Ray’s adaptation feels as easy and assured as anything he ever made. And, while The Chess Players isn’t as rich or provocative a character study as Ray’s greatest works, it’s a pleasurable showcase of his comic and dramatic sensibilities.
Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar) and Meer (Saeed Jaffrey), two Lucknow noblemen, are so enamored of chess playing that they’re oblivious to the political and domestic upheavals around them. While Mirza’s wife wiles away in her bedroom, cross and neglected, Meer uses her husband’s all-day devotion to chess playing as an opportunity for some cuckolding. These guys are too tuned-out, however, too buffoonish to pick up on these clues. Likewise, they blissfully shrug off rumors of the East India Company’s troops imminently laying siege to their pleasure haven and deposing their king.
In adapting Prem Chand’s short story, Ray cleverly juxtaposes the chess players’ quotidian pleasures of pompous banter and hookah smoking, all the while hunched over their ivory chess pieces, with scenes of General Outram (played with oily conviction by Richard Attenborough), as he deliberates with King Wajid (Amjad Khan), anxious to plant the Union Jack atop his palace, and expand the Queen’s empire. While Ray stays true to King Wajid’s reputation as a harem-happy sybarite, he also punches up his more sympathetic qualities: namely, that he’s observantly religious, and a devout patron of dance, poetry, and music. With his mournful eyes and humble delivery, Amjad Khan ably appeals to our hearts, not least because we share his moral puzzlement over Outram’s insidious maneuverings.
The Chess Players takes its time to play out, but it gracefully holds our attention. Ray’s camera may be purely functional, but it’s not without a certain slyness that winks at the viewer every now and then: When Mirza leaves their chess game to tend to his distraught wife, warning Meer not to alter the position of the pieces, the camera watches as Meer’s impatiently waits for his return. Finally, after checking for eavesdroppers in the hallway, he reaches in and does exactly what Mirza suspected he would. Mirza misses the act, but Ray’s camera does not: Panning with him back into the parlor, the camera catches Meer from behind a slit in the drapery to spy his hand in flagrante. Those amusing touches, along with sharply observed gestures pointing to class differences and domestic disquiet, let us know that Ray’s movies live between the lines, in those offhand but brilliantly revealing nuances of human behavior.
Jaffrey’s whimsical and doting Meer perfectly offsets Kumar’s proud, boastful Mirza, and, as the political temperature of the story rises and their attempts to keep playing their game borders on the desperate and bungling, there’s an antic glee to Ray’s telling. The mannered goofiness of The Chess Players echoes the pastoral comedy of Days and Nights In the Forest while the Raj-era dancing-girl trappings recall the decidedly grim The Music Room. Finally, as their worlds as well as their friendship hang in the balance, we find ourselves wistful for Mirza and Meer’s futures. For we realize that it’s not ignorance but pure terror that keeps them from admitting their crumbling realities to themselves and clinging to a game, to a state of suspended denial. To a war that’s only pretend.