Shatranj ke Khilari, ode to a lost kingdom

Publié le 28 Décembre 2009

("Make way for Queen Victoria!")

Shatranj ke Khilari (1977, The chess players) shows how close Satyajit Ray has come to Shakespearian inspiration. In this story of two gentlemen of Lucknow we have the dilemma of the good king, made powerless by a power stronger than his own; we have the Realpolitik of History and Conquest magnified to the dimension of lyrical drama, we have - on the backdrop of a nostalgic XIXth century society of servants and breathtaking outdoor scenery - the subplot of loud-spoken and often clownish compeers who bring their conventional comic relief. The two stories intertwine superbly, and create a rich pattern of symbolical and psychological truth which deserves the greatest praise. I think only Satyajit Ray could pull this off, in Indian cinema.


There have been a number of “chess films” and books, too – Ray’s film is in fact based on a story by Munshi Premchand – notably Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle, and the game’s inspirational symmetrical structure contains a sort of magnetism which is easily used visually and dramatically. But Satyajit Ray isn’t a victim of that influence; the game’s charm, or its curse, doesn’t interest him: he plays with its evocative tradition of confrontation and isolated pair of opponents, and is as much interested in the players as in the game. Chess is only an image for the main subject of the film, the conflict of power opposing the various protagonists. It is thus possible to decide that the main characters are the title-bearers, i.e., the two noblemen with their quirkiness and their aloofness from outside events, or the king, his prime minister and General Outram, the British Resident in Lucknow (Richard Attenborough). Depending on whether you think the first are Ray’s target, you have the perspective according to which the film criticises the moral futility of the gentility, its indifference to the real world. Or your point of view would be a more political and historical one, and you would say that the film dissects the weakness of Indian resistance to British imperialism.

oubliez le jeu ce soir
("Forget the game, tonight")

I have decided to choose the second one, for several reasons. I realize that the film isn’t called “The powerless king”, or “How Britain ate the last cherry on the Indian cake”. But I’ll explain this later. First there is Satyajit Ray’s choice of language. Shatranj ki khilari is his only film in urdu. We know that otherwise he writes and directs his film in Bengali. Choosing urdu means that he is placing himself in the centre of the political and historical chessboard, where the roots of modern India are to be found. How did England become a colonial Empire? What were its moves to achieve that aim? Everything started in Bengal, around Calcutta. But things really became serious when the imperialist power began conquering the subcontinent in a pincers-like movement, South towards Madras and North towards Delhi, thus preparing for the moment when the two claws would meet in Bombay, as you can see on this double map of India.

India 1837 to 1857

The encircling is done in 1857, one year after the annexation of the kingdom of Awadh (or Oudh) which occurred in 1856. And 1857 is the year of the famous Indian Rebellion, which marks the end of any Indian claim to supremacy. The Sepoy mutiny takes place in Lucknow, and if Ray chooses to film the event of the dethronement of the king of Awadh in 1856, it is in natural reference to the events of a year later. The strategic moves which would enable Britain (through its commercial cover-up, the East Indian Company) to rule all of India as from 1857, were prepared by the careful planning of the 1856 coup.

Le pouvoir

So making the characters speak Urdu emphasizes for Ray the centrality of Awadh as an essential square on the political and military chessboard. Just as Lucknow was the centre for refinement and culture at the time (and Urdu its linguistic medium), Awadh was the central and remaining link in Britain’s conquest of the Northern states. It had to be subjugated, and even if the move provoked the Sepoy rebellion of 1857 (which showed the importance of the tactical decision), the British had already gained too much power for a divided and multiple resistance to come back to the old Mughal Empire. The Government of India Act, voted in Parliament in 1858, instituted the new era of the British Raj which would last until 1947.

A slice of Oudh

(A slice of Oudh, your Excellency?)

So “the chess players” are really Lord Dalhousie and General Outram on the one hand, and king Walid and his ministers on the other. The trouble is that the Indians play in their “Indian” way whereas the English have adopted a “faster” variation of the game. On the English chessboard the Queen has all the power (that’s Queen Victoria of course), whereas the Indian version has only a “minister”. The soldier pawns move at double speed too: two squares instead of one! Finally, the rule of promotion of the pawn into a queen, once it reaches the eighth square is a clear reference to the “conquer and rule” policy. These details of the chess game, explained in the film by the delightful character of Nandlal Sahab, only serve to underline the British expansionist superiority that India could do nothing against at the time. The film also carefully presents General Outram’s conflict of duties, forced as he was to implement the Governor’s decision to annex Oudh, and this gives us a fine psychological insight into the understanding of the broader historical picture.

Notre jeu est trop lent

("Do they find our game too slow?")

As a result, the two noblemen Mir (Saeed Jaffrey) and Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar) engrossed in their “stupid” game (as Khurshid, Mirza’s wife – a fiery Shabana Azmi -, says) serve as an comical illustration of the tragic History that engulfs them. They play chess, but mainly they play, while others are involved in the serious job of designing the future of their country above their heads. They are children who do not understand what is happening in the adult’s world. Their “order” is based on the simple rules established by their ancestors long ago, and they have not learned to observe the changing times. And the catastrophe is that the king Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) is one of these children too! He is shown as a pensive introvert who realises he’s not up to the task of governing, but cannot change that. His character is beautiful and poignant at the same time.


When he is asked to give his order for an army and artillery to be summoned to retaliate the Company’s advances, we see him heave a sigh, as if he was going to cry, look away ahead of him – a view of the palace rooftops appears for a moment in the sunset - and, to the dismay of his ministers, he starts a song about his beloved Lucknow that he doesn’t know how he will be able to leave: “You can take away my crown, but you cannot take away my dignity…” We know that King Walid is known to be a revivalist of the classical arts: “He is hailed as one of the most prodigious promoters of Thumri (A form of classical music) and Kathak (A popular form of classical dance from northern India). In this paradoxical character, Amjad portrays the masculinity of a King and effeminacy of a man dedicated to dance, poetry and music, with equal conviction. Music of the movie is also a plus. In most of the scenes, one can listen to melodious thumris or other compositions of Indian classical music being played in the background.” (Kandarp Mehta from IMdB)

This reviewer has an axe to grind, by the way. He criticises Ray for not being faithful to Premchand’s story. Here is his main criticism: “the biggest alteration has been made in the climax of the story and this destroys the very patriotic essence of the story. In the original story, both the characters, Mirza and Mir, end up killing each other. Munshi Premchand very categorically mentions twice that they did not lack 'personal valor' but didn't want to use qualities of courage and bravery for their nation. Munshi Premchand was a patriotic writer. He wanted to show that prosperity made the Indian elite lazy, myopic and lackadaisical, and fated India with foreign rule. On the other hand, Ray kept them alive, and actually portrays them as impotent people, who accept their cowardice as a fact of life. New York Times Review of the movie (DT: May 17, 1978) wrote Ray Satirizes Indian Nobility: Civilized Impotency. This is definitely not how Munshi meant it to be. In order to have a greater universal appeal, and fetch more awards, Ray killed the very patriotic soul of the story.”

("What would happen if war broke out?")

I’m not sure that there is such a difference, notwithstanding the “personal valor” which Premchand might have wanted to bestow on the two noblemen, reduced to “impotency” by Satyajit Ray. Did making them kill each other show their valour more than having them fight, and after having reconciled, start to play once again? I wouldn’t say they are cowards; they are simply ignorant of reality. They are never faced with a decision which could have, if taken, saved the fate of India. Ray points out on the contrary that it is too late, that India in 1856 was doomed. 1857 was at hand, and even if a battle (and its uncertainties) had to be won by the British, in retrospect, this date marked only one thing: India’s subjection. On the other hand, Ray also shows that the culture which Mir and Mirza stand for, and which the King promoted, was exquisite and elaborate, and this isn’t downplayed by the film. Certainly he is saying that today’s culture might gain from revisiting the sources which King Walid revived. Globalization represents a threat which can be fought against. And if some believe that, like the fate of the Indian empire in the movie, Indian culture is equally doomed to be eaten up by the global trends, they may be right, but that history has still to be written.


One last remark, concerning the cinematographic pleasure experienced in Shatranj ke Khilari: the game metaphor is an apt one for any movie, where actors move on the board as directed by the master; but the depth and intelligence of the game also receives added brilliancy from the contrast of scenes, inside and outside, the close-ups and the wide-angle shots, the rich and colourful evocations of a luxury where time seemed to have stopped. In short, the film is a song, a swan-song maybe, filled with tedium perhaps, but the song whose variegated accents – now grave, now joyful, ominous or ludicrous, mingle to recreate a world of refinement and beauty, eternal in its fleetingness.

For other reviews, do not miss who puts the movie in a perhaps more decadent perspective than the one upheld here. But his commentaries of some of the scenes are a real pleasure.  On there is the remark that the film was made during the “Emergency” period of Indian Politics, and he suggestion that Indira Gandhi acted in a similar way to that of Mir and Mirza. Minai has a rather pleasant take on the film, and Rameshram's comments make an interesting counterpoint! And at John Nesbit holds the view that the film suffers from “excessive narration and overly staged acting”, so it’s interesting to read their point of view in the perspective of Ray’s “wonderful canon”. Finally, this page has some interesting things on Wajid Ali Shah and Ray's treatment of the historic figure.

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Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews

Commenter cet article

Marianne 12/01/2010 23:37

Cela ne me gêne pas du tout!! C'est un blog que j'avais l'habitude  de fréquenter il y a longtemps et que j'avais perdu de vue en délaissant le mien... I am so glad to find it again!

Tnx for your answer and oh yes Satyajit Ray is amazing!

See u soon!

yves 14/01/2010 23:06

Great Marianne, so we'll continue that way for the moment!
see U

Marianne 12/01/2010 23:06

Namaste Yves!

C'est le premier film de Satyajit Ray que j'ai vu, merci pour les souvenirs...

A bientôt


yves 12/01/2010 23:16

Merci Marianne de ta visite: cela ne te gêne pas que le blog soit en anglais? Un jour peut-être je mettrai des choses en français!
PS: Je suis content quand j'entends des personnes comme moi apprécier Satyajit Ray!
A bientôt!

bawa 31/12/2009 12:01

Yves, I had thought I had posted a response but for some reason it didn't get to you as I can see.
Well, your question has already been answered to some extent, but I would like to add two things. First, that a mutiny implies that it is a rebellion carried out by soldiers, etc. in your employ,
and we can all see that it was much widespread than that, and for whatever reasons, included kingdoms that were not even a part of the East India Co. yet.

The second point is a response to your second point about infrastructures etc. It is a point I have often discussed with others. The British did not build these infrastructures to take into account
the needs of the Indian population (though they obviously like to believe that now). Everything that was built was to serve the needs of its own troops, and make the governance of the country
easier for the administration. Any benefits to the population were a by-product. If you could get hold of something called the Annals of Great Britain.. ?? (there is a reference in the Encyclopadia
Britannica to the same) it isa more fascinating insight into what actually went on from the point of view of the British Govt., which was that basically India was one of the biggest branches of the
MultiNational Company called Britian.
There are things like Costs/ Expenses: police, land adminsitration system, etc. and Income: from trade, goods sold, minerals extracted, etc. And then there is a column called Profits, which one can
see were very good indeed. There are accounts at the National level, and also at the level of each province, and they are very detailed indeed.
Like any good company they invested in parts that were likely to generate more income and profits in the future.
The economic contribution diverted from India to fight the First World War almost pushed the country to bankruptcy. Again the Encyclopaedia Britannica cites the monetary contributions, and they are
stagerring figures indeed.
A look at them dispels all subsequent efforts of any colonial power to try and disguise their varoius holdings around the world under all sorts of pretexts.

yves 03/01/2010 17:45

Hi Bawa,

Thanks for your long comment! I agree with you of course on the question of infrastructures built during the 2nd half of the XIXth century. The fact that Britain built them for her own interst is
clear, but I wanted to point out that nevertheless, they served to pave the way for India's development at that time and later too.
The same thing happened for education, up to a certain extent: the development of schools and institutes meant for Indians to help Britain in its colonial entreprises reverberated later in so far
as it helped constitute a middle class who would later turn against the colonial power.
Thanks for the references you went into great detail to indicate.

Madhulika 30/12/2009 05:37

Thanks, Yves!

BTW, jumping into another conversation... even though I personally usually refer to the events of 1857 as the 'Mutiny', Bawa's right that most Indians would refer to it as the First War of
Independence - that's officially what it's called, too. And though it meant that Victoria became Empress, it was really the first large-scale, extensive  uprising against British colonialism.

yves 30/12/2009 19:10

Yes, and in between, while waiting for Bawa's response, I too have researched a little about that Indian point of view of the 1857 events. I now realize that the aftermath of the 1857 uprising, ie
the laws establishing the British Raj, can easily be construed as creating a situation in which Britain was forced to take the Indian reality into consideration, something it hadn't been doing much
For example the extensive infrastructure programme that started in the years 1860 (railways, roads, canals...) shows that Britain was trying to reach an appeasement with India through this type of
heavy investment, which certainly benefitted its trade projects, but also aimed at quieting a society which had suffered from the quashing of the uprising. This can therefore help historians look
upon 1857 as a first step towards Independence.

Madhulika 29/12/2009 14:48

Your son's work sounds very interesting - I've heard of WWOOF, but never come across anybody who worked with them.
August will (hopefully!) not be too bad, I suppose they'll have completed most of the work by then.

yves 29/12/2009 14:56

Well... Okay, why not, I'll let you know. I'm very embarrassed to be offered anything! But if you tell me that you would like to come to France, and I can reciprocate, I would be most pleased. This
is where I live:
Don't hesitate to let me know.

bawa 29/12/2009 14:33

Hello Yves,
Very thoughtful review as usual, but I will be mischievious and point out that the terms 1857 Indian Rebellion/Mutiny is only used as such in British history books (maybe european too?)
In India you would refer to it as the First War of Independence.

yves 29/12/2009 14:47

Thanks for your mischieviousness, Bawa: does this mean that Indians see 1857 as a step towards Independence!? Because as objectively as I can see it, the events of those years point more towards
India's loss of Independence than anything else! But I'm very interested in the idea that historical facts can be interpreted differently according to where you are.
For example, do you think Ray might hold this view that you're ascribing to Indians?

Madhulika 29/12/2009 14:03

And when you do come to India (in particular Delhi), I will be very happy to take you around the sights! Do come - but only after the Commonwealth Games (scheduled to begin in October 2010) are
over. The city's a mess right now, with construction going on all over the place!

yves 29/12/2009 14:39

Hmmm, that's tempting! But I don't know yet. Well, to say the truth (I don't remember if I mentioned it), my elder son is there right now. He's involved in WWOOF farms, which you might have heard
of, these bio farms where you can stay provided you work with the crew on the farm. He's already spent two and half months in the North, in and out of farms. So, we might indeed join him there next
summer, but it would have to be in August, unfortunately!

Madhulika Liddle 29/12/2009 05:21

It's been too long since I've seen Shatraj ke Khiladi, but I do remember it as one of those films one can't really forget - one scene I recall especially vividly is the one where Shabana Azmi,
who's hidden the chess pieces, comes rushing into the room and flings them down when she realises her husband is too engrossed in chess to ever be able to get it out of his mind.

And I so love those last two screen caps: that woman could be in a painting, and that shot of old Lucknow makes me want to go there again... thank you for sharing this. And happy New Year!

yves 29/12/2009 12:34

Happy near year to you as well Madhulika, and thanks for passing once again. I wish I too could say "Old Lucknow where I want to go again"... I still have to go to India for my first time!
All the best,