The Chess Players
The late British politician Enoch Powell had a rather complicated relationship with India. He was well versed in the languages of the subcontinent but so opposed independence he drew up plans indicating how many battalions would be needed to keep the country.
Perhaps because of this complexity he understood, better than anyone the unique love between Britain and the crown jewel of the Empire, perfectly evinced by this anecdote from his time in the Punjab:
…when a young Brahmin drew alongside me and after some conversation in Urdu between us, pointed to his home some hundred yards from the road and suggested I go there with him for a drink of water. While my hosts used a brass vessel, I drank from a rough earthen tumbler, which, on thanking them and taking my leave, I smashed on the ground to show that I knew it could not anyhow be used again. ‘He is a Hindu,’ they said to one another with a smile. There is a sense in which it had been true: the British were married to India, as Venice was married to the sea.
The Chess Players opens in the year 1856 in the city of Lucknow. This is the capital of Oudh, a prosperous state the British East India Company have their eyes on. Over the course of the film events play out that will see the state go from being a protectorate of the British to a wholly owned part of John Company.
We witness drama unfold from the point of view of two minor members of the local nobility. Financed by rents from land holdings they lead sybaritic lives and barely notice the monumental events swirling around them. In fact they are so obsessed by their on going games of chess they neglect regular meals, their households and the company of their wives.
This sense of dislocation from the growing threat of takeover mirrors that of the ruling Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah. He is an artistic & musical man, a fair king but also a leader interested less in the responsibility of kingship than in its regal trappings. He is observed from afar by Richard Attenborough’s General Outram who thinks him unfit to rule, the final impediment to British conquest of the state.
The theme of chess here is clearly an allegory for the machinations of empire building and is handled splendidly by Satyajit Ray. Less subtle directors could have concentrated on the relationship between the Nawab and Outram and perhaps how Queens and Knights are outmanouvered so as to checkmate a King. By choosing to focus on the two rentier nobles Ray opens up to discussion how a ruler is defeated not by an aggressive opponent but rather by a passive defence. To extend the analogy these two knights are more interested in saving the kings on their chess board than the one they pay fealty to in the palace mere streets away.
There is a certain inevitability of events here so tension is not something the director can draw on, nor would the pacing welcome a grand finale or large battle scene. Neither of these elements detract from the power of the story however, and Ray himself stated in a contemporary interview that a conventional approach would not have been the correct one for this film,
“The conventional approach is wrong. Because it tells you that the best way to tell a story is to leave out all except those elements which are directly related to the story, but if your theme is strong and simple, then you can include a hundred little apparently irrelevant details which, instead of obscuring the theme, only help to intensify it.”
This is the only film Ray directed outside of his native West Bengal, and the only one he helmed in a language not his own. It’s a fine addition to his canon and as good a window into the relationship Imperial Britain had with India as you could hope to see.
The Chess Players aka Shatranj ke Khilari – directed by Satyajit Ray (1977)
The Indian Kingdom of Oudh is in danger of falling into the hands of the British Empire. But rather than resisting two members of the local nobility instead chooses to fill their days playing chess.