Saturday, September 28, 2013

Shatranj Ke Khilari

Ray. No, not Ray Our Great Regurgitator discussed in other posts, but the late, and maybe rather greater, Indian film director Satyajit Ray. His film The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khilari in Hindi) first came out in 1977. I think I saw it then, but it's half a lifetime ago and I'm not terribly sure. Anyway, S&B Chess Blog wasn't around then to blog it, so I popped along to the recent Satyajit Ray retrospective at the British Film Institute to check out this famous example of chess-in-film.

We are in mid-19th Century India, and the centre-piece is the chess - and ongoing distractions from it - that Mirza Sajjd Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Meer Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) attempt to play throughout. They come across as no stronger than enthusiastic social players, with a fondness for early moves of their rook pawns. That's "attempt to play" because the game is rather like another famous running joke from the same era: the meal that Fernando Rey and his chums try to enjoy in the sly The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie - they start, but they never seem properly to finish.

Mirza (left) playing the white pieces, Meer (right) playing the, um, white pieces
after their own set was confiscated - see below. (From here)
It is on the domestic front that the two friends get some grief: but they are so feckless as not to clock what is actually going on right under their noses, which is to say behind their backs, viz., Meer's wife (Farida Jalal) is indulging in some extra-curricula activities with her cousin (yes, cousin), and Mirza's Mrs is looking ominously mutinous because he is underperforming on his conjugal obligations.

Khurshid, Mirza's wife, is played by the beautiful Shabana Azmi who is featured in the film's publicity and video packaging as below, it being industry standard to gratuitously portray the leading lady as druggy seductress. She makes her point about marital neglect by surreptitiously relieving them of their set - a strategy in the style of Marcel Duchamp's spouse, though she preferred the tactic of gluing his bits to the board.  

(From here)
They try and borrow a set from their friend the lawyer. Frustration. They improvise with tomatoes, chillies and the like but end up with a salad of a game (fit only for rabbits? - ho, ho!). But Kurshid relents and to their comic relief their own set returns, like the monsoon rains, from the heavens. Their obsession is played for gentle laughs throughout as a foil to the main business, the real game of colonial manoeuvre, calculated by a dour cigar-chomping Scot, General Outram (Richard Attenborough) - the action is set in 1856 in the long run up to Queen Victoria anointing herself Empress of India in 1876, the culmination of Britain's imperialist project.

Meer and Mirza play their escapist game at home in their sumptuous apartments as befits the discreet charm of the Indian bourgeoisie. Meanwhile General Outram, installed in the colonial HQ of the East India Company (the attack dog of British imperialism), is plotting to expand Her Majesty's dominion by revoking an earlier treaty and annexing the northern Indian Kingdom of Oudh. This is ruled by the hitherto complacent, but now much exercised, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) - seen left in the bottom half of the advert above.

The Nawab is given an offer that he could only refuse if he took on the might of the British Army, aka the military wing of the East India Company, which he wisely chooses not to do - a humiliating decision, but it spares his loyal troops (commendable), and nets him a nice pay-off for his voluntarily abdication (so, not so difficult after all). 

All this colonial business (and I mean "business") was conducted, as the film rightly tells it, by the Company  acting as a proxy for HMG.
Oudh surrounded by the EIC (from here)
You might think that it is modern governments that have adopted, as an article of faith, the notion that the private sector does it best (witness today's sale of the Post Office). But you'd be wrong. Over a hundred and fifty years ago the Victorians let rip laissez-faire as if there was no tomorrow, on, you might say, an industrial scale; thus privatising even their foreign policy to the likes of the East India Company. And of course, not for the last time in history, the private sector failed the nation. The EIC was eventually sacked after its heavy-handedness provoked a real Indian Mutiny in 1857, and the administration of India had to be brought "in-house" by Queen Victoria and HMG.

At the beginning of the film we see, in an odd, Pythonesque, animation, the Kingdom of Oudh as the next cherry to be gobbled down by the voracious Lord Dalhousie, the architect of Britain's colonial strategy in India. As this comes to pass the two chess-playing friends finally wake up to the realpolitik, symbolically coming to blows as they do in the one episode of bad blood between them. But they patch up their quarrel - it was precipitated, not so much by the loss of sovereignty of the Kingdom, but by teasing over marital infidelity (unconcerned, as they always were, by the bigger picture) - and go back to their game as the Redcoats march in to take over the Kingdom.
The Redcoats arrive (from here)
The twin, echoing, themes of chess and power politics are neatly tied together at the beginning and end of the film as the two friends discuss the novel, new-fangled, way of playing Shatranj promoted by those all-conquering Brits. viz., that the queens start on their own-coloured squares, and the pawns may move two squares initially (no mention, though, of the extended queen move - another reform of the ancient Indian game). To start with Mirza and Meer jest that it will never catch on. But by the close, when the Brits have arrived and the new reality dawns, they are seen trying out this new, and faster, version, as if to curry favour with the new power in the land; and perhaps now they'll manage to finish a game. 

In general, from what one can make out, the chess looks plausible - just - including one position (in a scene well into the film) that Mirza thinks is winning for him, and about which Meer has come to the same conclusion. Mirza is distracted on discovering the cousin in the bedroom with his wife, though she deftly pulls the wool over hubby's eyes. Meer seizes his chance and in a neat bit of camera work we, and only we, catch Meer j'adoube the knight when he thinks no one is watching - after which Mirza returns, to be hoodwinked yet again.            

It is a subtle, funny and absorbing film, with considerable political bite, by a GM of the genre. It is seldom shown in cinemas these days but is available on video, and on Youtube, though unfortunately without English sub-titles. If you have seen it at any time I hope this post will evoke fond memories. If you haven't, maybe this has whetted your appetite.              

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