Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Shathranj ki khiladi (Chess Player) -1977

Shathranj ki kiladi is a classic from the master director. A must watch for every quality movie lover. Spoilers ahead, so my strong advice would be to watch the movie first and then read the review.

This is the first HINDI movie of satyajit ray and probably the most lavishly spent of all his movies.This is not a pather panchali or charulatha with its lyrical beauty. But this has its own unique style.You might have seen many movies with parallel threads in foreign films but a very rare occurance in indian cinema. This one is satyajit ray style and and it was made in 1977.

The movie is based on munshi premchand's story of the same name. Supposedly it was first published in Hindi as 'Shatranj ki baazii' in 'Madhuri' on October 1924 and in Urdu as "Shatranj Ke KhilaaRii' in 'Zamaanaa' on December 1924.

The history:
The british raj is spreading, the decaying mugal empire has resigned itself and only small pockets of their great empire remains. The british do their clever moves on the kings, they offer military protection for a sum of money.The kings gladly accept the protection of the superior british force. The kings then think, when the british is giving protection, why do we have to maintian
an expensive army. The kings dismantle their army. Without an army and without much to do the kings indulge themselves in various entertainments. The british after a few years of protection, knowing that the country lacks the military strength to oppose them, make a move to annex the country. The king who has already dismantled the army and is mentally week does not want to fight the british.


Shathranj ki khiladi (chess player) is about Chess player's.Mirza Sajjad Ali(Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali(Saeed Jaffrey) are two aristocrats living in the state of oudh. They are two passionate chess players.They play chess everyday from morning to dusk, even while eating.They are so passionate that they ignore everything including there wives Khurshid(Shabana Azmi) and Nafisa(Farida Jalal) for the game.While they are so engrossed in the games everyday, there is a regime change in oudh.

Amjad khan is the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of oudh and Victor Banerjee is his prime minister. The nawab spends his time in various activites. He dances, writes poems and spends time with women.Ottram(Richard Attenborough) is the Company representative in Oudh who feels that the nawab is not fit to rule the state.East india company decides to take over the reins of oudh from its nawab(Amjad khan).what happens to oudh and the chess players is the story.

The movie works on multiple levels, and the characterization carries the ray's stamp of greatness. Right from the opening of the sequences where Mirza Sajjad Ali shouting at Mir Roshan Ali for touching a piece and not making a movie with it you know that Mirza is an angry guy and Mir roshan is a go easy guy who makes mistakes and is not serious about things. The movie continues with that characterization all throughout till the climax where this difference between them comes out in open.

outram's attitude is the typical british attitude which considered the indians kings as not fit to rule. His view is that of the righteous british way of looking at a ruler as only to serve people and not to indulge in any other activities. He finds a king flying kites, writing poetry and dancing not only funny but also the traits of a bad ruler.

Through Outram, ray let's out his feelings of the british's colonialism. Outram even though shown as the righteous guy who wants to unseat the indulgent king.You can see the mild envy in him with respect to the kings lifestyle and his mutta wife's. He also exposes the double standards of the british through him.

For example outram calls the king as a bunch of contradiction after finishing saying that sentence he agrees that they are at fault with the agreement that they are getting the king to sign.He also says that they cannot annexe oudh according to the old agreement but still they will do it.But he calls the king as a bunch of contradiction.

Similarly ray sights at many places about the british imperial attitude.When ever a british high official's visits the kingdom(like the sleeman commision),he is treated lavishly and given what ever he asks for and they don’t complain, but when they go away form the kingdom they become distant and righteous guys who complain about the king.

Wajid ali shah is the epitome of enjoying oneself. He was a connoisseur a poet,dancer,composer etc. There is an old saying that "you know that arrival of wajid ali shah with the arrival of his hukah". Amjad khan as the king is kind of comic too.A darbar is in session and someone is pleading something to the king, even though the king is looking to be listening to the guy.Actually he is penning a song in his mind.

Ray uses various kinds of narration to put forward the story.The movie starts with the introduction with the voice of amitabh, about the history of the state.Ray even uses cartoons at places to narrate things.Then the narration goes to the story of the two aristocrats, and that of the nawab of oudh.The movies switches between hindi and english.All dialouges of the british officers are in english and the rest are in hindi.

The movie is actually very funny, when i think back i find the whole thread of the 2 chess players funny, especially saeed jaffrey's dialogues. The scenes have a subtle comedy in them which you can enjoy a lot on repeated viewings. Their playing environment is a nice room with hukka near their seats and a cozy shawl .Food comes to where they play, servants bring them pawn and refill the hukka when ever it is over. They dont move from their place the whole day, servants even bring water to wash their hands and these two guys play on. Nothing can stop these guys, they play with vegetables and go to a guy who is bedridden and play chess stealthily without caring for that guy.End of the movie they become two unforgettable characters.

The photography is very good. There is a scene where you just see a close up of hukka from a low angle and a completely dark background. Only the hukha is lighted. From the dark background looming large over the low angle camera comes the eriee image of the servant to fill the hukkha. Well captured. You see this kind of a selected lighting on objects in many places in the movie. Like the scenes where the king is shown dancing in a complete dark background. Selected lightings on the king and the nautch girls, brightly dressed in lavish costumes was a treat to watch.

Art direction is bansi chandragupta is awesome.This movie joins the very few indian movies like umrao jaan and junoon that brought the lucknow of 1850's to life again. Lucknow was at its peak in arts and culture during that time and this movie beautifully recreates that time period. Music is by satyajit ray himself.

The visuals of Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali playing chess might not have the impact of the devil playing chess with Antonius Block in Ingmar bergman's Seventh seal, but it definitely joins seventh seal on the list of great movies made with a metaphorical chess game.

Shama zaidi - costumes/dialouges

Cast and Credits:
Sanjeev Kumar .... Mirza Sajjad Ali
Saeed Jaffrey .... Mir Roshan Ali
Shabana Azmi .... Khurshid, Mirza's wife
Farida Jalal .... Nafisa, Mir's wife
Victor Banerjee .... Prime Minister (as Victor Bannerji)
Farooq Shaikh .... Aqueel (as Farooque Shaikh)
Tom Alter .... Capt. Weston (Outram's aide de camp)
Leela Mishra .... Hirya, Khurshid's maid
Samarth Narain .... Kallu
Amjad Khan .... Wajid Ali Shah
Richard Attenborough .... General Outram

The movie has some great star cast. Saeed jaffrey is awesome with his subtle comical sense and forgetful nature. Sanjeev kumar the man known for his subtelety, plays the part of the angry and full of pride Mirza Sajjad Ali to perfection. It even has the director "Richard Attenborough"(Ghandhi) in it.Victor banerji is the prime minister of oudh and amjad khan is the king, it is sad to see that such a talented actor like Amjad was wasted in the commercial movies.

Best Regional Feature Film : Shatranj Ke Khilari
Director : Satyajit Ray

The movie is widely available in DVD/VCD.Think both shemaroo and Eros carry it

Ray's portrayel of wajid ali shah
Premchand's chess player from Aroma Radio
Wajid Ali shah

**** spoilers are for people who didn't understand the movie, so watch the movie and read it ******

For someone not used to these narration style it might take some time to get the relationship between the two threads.You will be waiting for that scene that will invariably put the two chess players right into the middle of the other story of the regime change of oudh. But it never happens .when you look at the title and think again deeply on the two threads, things will be clear to you, the bigger picture will appear. When these two players where playing chess.There was a bigger game of chess being played by the east india company.

The British want the kingdom of oudh, they make their first movie with a report made by a british officer. The king is shocked, but does not care about it. Their next movie on the board is to cite the report and make the king sign a new treaty, which will give them the power. The british know that they cannot get the king to sign because he is protected by the treaty that they have already made with him.They need to break the old treaty to get to the victory. King does not want to do it.So their next move is to get to the QUEEN mother asking her to convince her son to give up the thrown. You can look at all these actions as moves on a bigger chessboard of the kingdom of oudh.

The parallels between the two thread will emerge once you start looking at the Game being played at two levels.On a further thought you can see that like the chess players who didn't care for their wifes,families but where only interested in their own games, both the king and the british where not interested in their people but the game.

Perceiving it from another angle, we are all players engaged in our own games, when so many things are happening around us. There are similar regime change or political changes or any important change for that matter is happening around us even today and most of us are engaged in our own games, without caring for it. Or we are those cowards/escapist who run away from pressing problems to pursue our silly games. Satyajit ray, the master that he is puts that in various places in the movie.If you go back to the movie and think all the scenes involving the common man, apart from these two groups that are playing small and big games, you can realize that everyone was in some sort of a game. There are not many scenes of crowds in the movie but when they were being showed, they were all involved in some form of a game or another. Flying kite, pigeons, cock fight, ram fight etc.

Shayam benegal's Junoon which was also a movie of oudh in 1857 kind of does the same story but the indulgence was Love.

Very good and detailed review Sen. You always give so much info that it's great to read your reviews.
-- Akshaya
thanxs akshaya
Most detailed movie review I ever read, thanks. Feel as if I just rewatched the movie.
thanxs ashwani
i was wondering why a satayjit ray movie missing in the discuusion from the beginning....finally we have one.....hoping for more.
more on satyajit ray please
There is no doubt a very good review on the film Shatranj ke khilari. I have written a post on the Nawab Wajed Ali Shah on my blog Logi-call at Hope you will read it comment on it.
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