THE CHESS PLAYERS (SHATRANJ KE KHILARI)
(director/writer: Satyajit Ray; screenwriter: story by Munshi Premchand; cinematographer: Soumendu Roy; editor: Dulal Dutta; music: Satyajit Ray; cast: Richard Attenborough (General Outram), Sanjeev Kumar (Mirza Sailad Ali), Saeed Jaffrey (Mir Roshan Ali), Shabana Azmi (Khurshid, Mirza’s Wife), Amzad Khan (Mawah Wajid Ali Shah), Tom Alter (Adviser), Farida Jalal (Nafisa); Runtime: 135; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Siresh Jindal; Kino; 1977-India-in English and Hindi with English subtitles)
“The uneven but elegantly told gentle historical film about conflicting cultures has its few moments of brilliance.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A satire on the nobility of 19th century India, during British colonialism. The great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray(“The World of Apu”/”Charulata”/”Devi”) directs and co-writes with Munshi Premchand a lavishly produced film that is heavy on symbolism–with valuable lessons for modern times on how mistaken it is for another country not to try to understand another country’s culture, especially if they have to deal with each other as ruler and subject. It’s set in 1856, in Lucknow, the capital of Oudh, in northern India. Ray re-creates the opulent look of Lucknow on the eve of the Indian Mutiny, as he exposes the ruthless ambitions of the imperialists and the lack of ambition displayed by the local rulers.
Comically two nawabs (noblemen), Mirza Sailad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey), play chess non-stop through an attempt by the British to annex their country without bloodshed through political chicanery. The intense players are so into the game that they also ignore the problems arising within their families. Mirza’s pretty wife (Shabana Azmi) is ignored even in their lovemaking, while Mir’s wife (Farida Jalal) cuckolds him with hubby’s nephew. It becomes ironically sad that the clueless players never realize that their game relates to both the historical and domestic affairs happening around them.
Meanwhile, in a parallel story to the chess players, the Maharajah, Mawah Wajid Ali Shah (Amzad Khan), the film’s narrator, an effete poet and musician, tells us he doesn’t care to rule but is proud of his large jewel-encrusted crown, given to his line of rule by the British, which he allowed to be exhibited in London. The King also likes to make merry with his many wives, rather than deal with the nefarious aims of The British East India Company. They are trying to trick him into signing a new friendship pact (treaty) with them so they could legally take over Oudh.
The uneven but elegantly told gentle historical film about conflicting cultures has its few moments of brilliance, but it is too much of a costume drama to get across all its serious aims. It is intentionally simplified in order to make certain everyone understands how the British amusingly treated the Indian nobility as children and patronized them in a condescending way–with the Brit general in charge (Richard Attenborough) prepared to depose the weak king after exclaiming in disbelief why the king had to pray five times a day and thinking him unfit to rule because he cared more about poetry than in being a ruler.
It’s Ray’s first film in Hindi. The British general in Lucknow, associated with The British East India Company, is General Outram, who is played with a fine stubborn subtlety by the English-speaking Brit actor Richard Attenborough–cinema’s future director of Gandhi.
REVIEWED ON 3/4/2014 GRADE: B https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/