Monday, September 11, 2006

Shatranj ke Khilari (1977)

Shatranj ke Khilari (Satyajit Ray, 1977)
English Title: The Chess Players

In an early scene in Satyajit Ray's only Urdu language film Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players), General Outram (Richard Attenborough) interrogates Captain Weston (Tom Alter) regarding the conduct of Oudh monarch Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan). The English-speaking Outram, curious of the supposed incompetencies of the Oudh king as shown by a report stating that the king spends an entire day poetry-reciting, songwriting, and tending to his impossibly large harem, requests that Weston recite one of the king's verses and the latter does so. He translates it to English as per request, and Outram thinks of the verse as not really of exceptional merit. Outram then reveals the British India Company's plans to depose the king of his crown and the administration of Oudh. The scene sets the conflict in the film while showcasing the outright clashes of culture of the invading British and the Muslim citizens of Oudh.

Shatranj ke Khilari is set in the last days of King Wahid's rule over the province of Oudh. The British has expressed to renege on the centuries old agreement that assured the royal family of the throne while providing gold for the British to advance their military. The agreement has made the ruling king lax and instead of actually administering to his subjects, he spends most of his time tending to his poetry, kite-flying, and his many wives and concubines. While the king is troubling over the impending advancement of the British military to conquer his kingdom, aristocrats Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar) and Meer (Saeed Jaffrey), descendants of brave warriors of a venerated past king, spend most of their time playing chess while their domestic lives and their nation suffer.

Shatranj ke Khilari is considered one of Ray's weaker efforts. It is notably different from Ray's most famous films as first, it is not in Bengali, second, Ray lets go of his neo-realist roots to create a film that feels and looks like a colorful and richly-adorned pageant, and lastly and connected to the second point, it is historically grounded paving way for more intellectual discussion rather than humanism. In fact, the film begins with an academic opener narrated by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. The opener feels more like a teaching tool for history students complete with intricate discussions on Urdu culture, Urdu-British relations, and an instructional (if not simplistically humorous) short animated portions.

The rest of Shatranj ke Khilari plays out like a confused Bunuel film, only there are no bourgeoisie or any structured religion to poke fun on. The two aristocratic friends insist on playing a game of chess no matter what, and their efforts to do such is actually quite funny. Mirza's wife is so jealous of the game that she steals the ivory pieces, leading the two friends to try to borrow the pieces of their dying lawyer, and then finally ending up using household vegetables just to continue their pastime. Similarly, Meer doesn't acknowledge the blunt fact that his wife is cheating because she leads him to think that she's also enthralled with the game. Those clever bits by Ray flush out the dulling gravity of the history lesson Ray insists upon.

The film ends with Oudh being delivered to the British without any resistance and violence. The two friends find themselves in an abandoned house just outside the capital city of Lucknow. While the entire kingdom is being served out to the Brits on a silver platter without any hesitation whatsoever, tension is created when in a fit of losing, one of the friends lash out to personally insult the other. The only gun blast heard when Oudh was finally invaded by the British was when in the tensest of that momentary tension, Meer accidentally shoots his friend in the sleeve of his arm. That the entire political history of India has been mere minds playing a long winded game of chess, and it is an expected eventuality, that through stratagems and notions of friendship, that one will finally shout "checkmate" and corner the opponent to withdraw.

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