Directed by Satyajit Ray
The only movies I can remember which made me laugh more than this one-actually laugh, not smile or snigger-are Chaplin's Circus and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Of course this film is far more refined, like a different blend of tea.
The film takes place in Lukhnow, 1856, a year before the anti-colonial uprising. Kite strings entwine in the sky, cocks fight to the death, rams exchange blows, and the crowds yell and scream. Lukhnow; the city of nawabs, Shiraz-e-Hind, the Constantinople of the East, birth place of Naushad (renowned Bollywood composer) and Begum Akhtar (a vocalist). It is the city of Kathak and Thumri (a dance form and traditional music genre respectively), pulao, biryani, kababs--"the garden, granary and the queen of provinces". This film is as much about the city as it is about its characters.
The province of Avadh, in which the city lies, was at the time being "ruled"-the British sword is sheathed but ever ready-by Nawab Wajid Ali Khan. He is played by Amjad Ali Khan in his finest performance. One wonders if this man is really Gabbar, the death spewing snake of Sholay, whose dialogues are now proverbs. In the hands of director Satyajit Ray, Amjad is transformed into an effete, dance loving, poetry composing, bemused Wajid Ali Shah, born to be a puppet-king, if king at all. He maintains a harem of 400 concubines, loves kite flying, and dresses up as a Hindu god and dances with the girls in raas-leela. He has many "muta" (Persian for pleasure) wives which he keeps for three or thirty days. Despite this, he says his prayers five times a day, won't touch a drop of wine, composes poetry of exquisite delicacy, and is the patron-founder of the lauded Lukhnow school of kathak (a classical Indian dance ), of which we are treated to an exquisite performance in the course of the film. Watching the dance, the Nawab's eyes moisten and lumps form in his throat. He is a true aesthete, if ever there was one. Consequently, he also is unfit to rule, as the British General Outram (played by Richard Attenborough) astutely observes.
Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Sayeed Jaffrey) are two local hereditary landlords who live off their taxes. They pass their lives in blissful idleness, chewing pan and smoking their hookahs. Quite in love with life and themselves, they flit from diversion to diversion--having currently made chess the centre of their lives--and, as chilum follows chilum, the comrades straddle the board from morn to eve, much to the discomfiture of at least one of their wives.
Mirza's shrewd and lovely wife is inimitably portrayed by Shabana. It is incredible to see Shabana, future parliamentarian and activist for women's rights, smoking a hookah! Bringing range and nuanced perfection to her role, Shabana loses herself in the performance while retaining perfect control. Farida Jalal, as the second wife, cuckolds Mir Sahib, who is far too stupid and trusting or unwilling or uninterested to know what is going on right under his nose. The Mirza's uncontrollable fit of laughter as he rolls up in spasm after spasm after spasm, all while being amazed at his friend's naiveté, is an absolutely incredible feat of acting, never seen in the annals of cinema.
Frustrated at being neglected on account of the game, the Mirza's own wife contrives to hide the chess pieces. After hilariously desperate endeavours to find another set, even taking them to the house of a dying attorney, they finally settle on continuing their game using vegetables such as tomatoes and onions as chess pieces. Outwitted, Shabana angrily hurls the pieces at the friends. They decide to shift the game to the Mir's place, where we are treated to another comic interlude of cuckoldry.
Meanwhile, a bigger game is in progress. Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general in Calcutta, sends General Outram (Attenborough) to Luckhnow with clear orders to take over the administration of the province. Veena, as the Queen Mother, Victor Banerjee, as the Prime Minister, and Tom Alter, as the urdu speaking aide de camp Captain Weston, all give indelibly memorable performances. Veena particularly, as the betrayed and wounded mother of Wajid Ali, is marvellous in her defiant yet fore-doomed cry for justice, to Queen Victoria and to heaven.
Finally, the chess friends retreat to a hovel in the countryside to pursue their game in peace. They quarrel over the game and, already in bad humour because of mosquitos and lack of a light for his smoke, one taunts the other about the doings of his unfaithful wife. Angered Mir Sahib fires his pistol.
As the gun explodes, we are treated to a panoramic sight of a rag-tag British force---cavalry, infantry, bullock carts, elephants, camels, muskets---on their way to take over Lukhnow. Deadly enough, come to think of it.
This gunshot reminds me of the plop of the stolen necklace in Pather Panchali as it sinks into the algae caked water of the village pond. It is an inspired moment and marks the conclusion of one era and the start of another. This ability to condense a lifetime into a single moment of sublime symbolism is one of the delights of this director.
"How can we, who couldn't manage our wives, face the British,” rues Mir Roshan Ali. They continue their game, waiting for the cover of darkness to sneak home.
The film is less about politics and history than about the confrontation of civilizations. Ray, with his oriental heart and western intellect, is well qualified to tackle this theme. It bears repetition that not one but each of the seven leading actors have given performances of amazing fluidity and power. Certainly no one who understands Hindi or Urdu should die without seeing this movie twice.
The peaks of this film are too many to single out. The Chess Players is a Himalayan achievement in the annals of Indian cinema, deserving more accolades than it has received.
Written by my dear friend S. M. Rana.
You can read more of his work at his blog Onlyne, at http://smrana.blogspot.com/
The film can be watched in its entirety on youtube.