Ray's clownish protagonists seem doomed. By mid-film you expect them either to wake up, put up a fight and die -- or lose everything they cherish without a fight. But there's the trick of the story. Mirza and Meer are incapable of tragedy. They are a classic comic buddy pair down to their hopeless homosociability. Mirza can barely be bothered to attend to his emotionally needy wife, even when she throws herself at him, and Meer never recognizes his cue to go home. Once Mrs. Mirza grows insufferable, the boys move their game to Meer's place, where Mrs. Meer has to hide her cousin and beau under the bed on hubby's unexpected arrival. Discovered in mid-hiding, the guilty pair concoct a tale that finally connects the buddies' misadventures to the historic tragedy; they tell Meer that Wajid Ali Shah is conscripting men off the street to raise an army against the British, and that the cousin was hiding to avoid a press gang. Meer is first confused ("Why hide under the bed if they can't see you through the window?"), then scared for himself. He tells Mirza the story and they evacuate to the countryside to avoid the recruitment drive. As the British army arrives to take possession of Oudh, the boys are on the brink of fighting a duel with pistols, Mirza having at least enough brains (he'd told his wife that chess had increased his intellect manyfold) to set Meer straight about the bed business, but not enough to avoid humiliating his friend. The first shot has been fired, but what will follow?
The fall of Oudh: Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan, right) confronts his nemesis (Richard Attenborough, seated) before the British armies arrive.