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Classics Hindi Reviews

The Chess Players / Shatranj Ke Khilari(1977) : Layered story telling at its best !!

Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) is the legendary Satyajit Ray’s first Hindi film and probably his only full length Hindi-Urdu film. A film which shows how masterfully Ray uses the situations and tools to help his narration, Shatranj Ke Khilari is a political satire which depicts the usurping of Avadh, a united province which was under the rule of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. The film is based on Munshi Premchand’s story by the same name.

There are two parallel narrations in the movie. Britishers lead by General Outram(Richard Attenborough) overthrowing the Nawab along with the story of two noble men who are obsessed with the game of Chess(Shatranj) going to any extend to play the game. What I like most about the film is that Ray takes a completely different way of telling you a brutal phase in the history of British rule in India. There is no verbal debates, gun fights or bloodshed. In fact, we hear the sounds of a gun firing from a distance only on a couple of occassions in the movie. Ray chooses to make a satire on the whole political maneuver by metaphorically relating it to the cunningness in the game of chess. He puts the Britishers and the Indian provinces like opponents in front of a chess board, where the indian states caves into the cunningness of the Britishers.

The parallel narrative of 2 chess players itself has two layers of meaning. Their obsession for the game can be related to the vehement attempts of East India Company to oust the Nawab from power. At the same time, Mirza(Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir(Saeed Jaffrey) are so preoccupied in the game that they forget whatever is happening around them. While Mirza completely ignores his wife Khurshid(Shabana Azmi) at home, Mir is totally ignorant of the fact that his wife Nafisa(Fareeda Jalal) is having a relationship with his nephew. They represent the many of the ruling men of India who were completely immersed in their extravagant royal life, forgetting their responsibilities and surrendering to the Britishers without any fights. Here, poet and languid artist Nawab Wajid Ali Shah is the Nero who was busy playing while Rome was burned.

The art direction and music were quite dazzling in showing the extravagant royal life. Satyajit Ray has done the music as well. The song “Kanha Mein Tose Haari” is extremely well picturized and probably carries the mood of the story as a whole. The Chess Players is deeply embedded in the culture of that era. Captain Weston, a british officer who works under General Outram, keeping a keen interest in the culture and urdu poetry and even reciting a poem penned by Nawab is one of the notable moments in the movie. The movie clearly depicts how fascism swallows these cultures when we are complacent, making it a transhistorical movie in which the theme can even be relevant in today’s world.

While the narrative progresses very slowly compared to the modern cinema, there is no lack of funny situations in the movie. Mirza and Mir waiting for the chess board from a dying man and later playing with tomatoes, potatoes and other vegetables when Mirza’s wife hides the chess pieces to make them stop playing chess, gives us a few hilarious moments.

Actors Sanjeev, and Saeed Jaffrey as the two chess players were outstanding in their comic timing and dramatic turns in their characters. Amjad Khan, as the inept ruler cum outstanding poet, does his part quite convincingly. Richard Attenborough comes as General Outram, someone who is caught between call of duty and sympathetic towards the nawab, delivers a brilliant feat as well.

The Chess Players is one of Ray’s movies with a totally different treatment from his other works. It may not be at the level of Apu Trilogy, Charulata, or Nayak, but surely one that has a lot to admire and has signature of a master filmmaker written all over it. Amazon Prime has a lot of Satyajit Ray movies at present including the Chess Players and arguably the best Indian movies ever Pather Panjali and Aparajito.

Streaming On : Amazon Prime, Mubi, Language : Hindi and Urdu

By sreenathjvm

I am a healthcare professional. An ardent movie lover. Writing about movies forever has been an obsession.

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