Wednesday, January 12, 2011

THE CHESS PLAYERS (Shatranj Ke Khilari, 1977)

Before Bollywood became cool, Satyajit Ray was the Indian director for the American art-house crowd, the only one worthy of respect, presumably, because he didn't interlard his films with song and dance numbers. As it happens, this particular picture, the first of Ray's that I've seen and one that seems aimed particularly at the international audience, does have a musical interlude, but it seems designed to be historically authentic -- there's just one dancer and traditional instruments are played -- and in dignified taste. There are also a couple of minutes of cartoon footage illustrating Britain's gradual swallowing of the "cherries" of the Mugal-era principalities up to 1856, the time of our story. That animation introduces a Pythonesque note to a story that's part Rossellini-style history play, part Kubrick-style elegant satire (think Barry Lyndon especially) and part sitcom. An interesting mix; whether it's characteristic of Ray's work I can't say, though I understand he was an eclectic talent who worked a broad range of genres and tones.

Ray tells two parallel stories, one tragicomic, one merely comic. The latter concerns our title characters, aristocratic buddies Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar) and Meer (Saeed Jaffrey), who obsess over "the game of kings and the king of games" at the expense of all other practical concerns. They live in the kingdom of Oudh, which has been gradually losing its sovereignty to the British East India Company. Oudh is ruled by Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan), an aesthete and voluptuary who comes across here as a benign Nero composing verses as his kingdom collapses. His hobbies disgust the Company resident (Richard Attenborough), for whom they prove the ruler's unfitness for his throne. For the ruler himself, the fact that his people sing his verses in the streets proves him a good ruler, a British-commissioned and presumably biased report notwithstanding. Wajid Ali at least appreciates the gravity of the situation and the disgrace he faces, even though he's been promised a luxurious allowance should he abdicate and surrender the government entirely to the Company. He'd like to make a stand, but successive concessions of the past have left him without the military means to resist British power. The military heritage of the nobility probably went extinct long ago. Mirza and Meer boast of their heroic warrior ancestors and keep the old weapons mounted on the walls of their respective homes, but they're not exactly the sort that Wajid Ali Shah could rely on in a crisis.

Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey as The Chess Players

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.

Well, I told you that this duo is too dumb for tragedy. The irony of The Chess Players is that Mirza and Meer will really lose nothing in the great change, because all they really value is the chess game and their own friendship. Ray gives the film a finish that's at once sentimental and sardonic as the friends not only reconcile with each other but with the British takeover. They'd scoffed earlier when a visitor told them that the British played chess differently, calling the "minister" a "queen" and changing other rules slightly to make the game go faster. At the end, they adopt the British rules on their own initiative, declaring, "Goodbye Minister, Hello Queen Victoria." For them, the game goes on, just as it should for such eternal types. Perhaps we should look down on them for failing their nation at a moment of crisis. At the same time, their hapless humanity transcends nationalism. They are lovable losers, charmingly acted by Kumar and Jaffrey, and only someone with a heart of stone would want to see them suffer more than the mild comeuppances they endure in the picture. Along with a poignant Amjad Khan as the king, they help Ray strike an unlikely balance between epic and mock-epic and make the film more entertaining as it goes along. Like I said, I don't know how representative a Ray film this is, but on its own terms I enjoyed it a lot.


Nathanael Hood said...

Sometimes the best tragedy is tempered with comedy and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

It is not mentioned that the movie is based on a short story with same name, by Munshi Prem Chand, who is considered to be father of short story writing in Hindi. The movie was a tribute by Mr. Ray to greatest story writer of Hindi and was perhaps first and last movie by Mr. Ray, in Hindi.

Samuel Wilson said...

Nathanael: Well said.

Anon: The irony of the homage is that, from what I've read, Ray wrote the script in English and had it translated into Hindi and Urdu, being himself a native Bengali speaker.