Chess Players, The (1977)

Satyajit Ray’s only Hindi film is an engrossing treatment on how the pleasures of chess can take on political and symbolic significance.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Satyajit Ray
1977 | India | Drama | 129 mins | Hindi, Urdu & English
Not rated – likely to be PG

Cast: Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Shabana Azmi, Richard Attenborough
Plot: Wazed Ali Shah was the ruler of one of the last independent kingdoms of India. The British, intent on controlling this rich country, had sent General Outram on a secret mission to clear the way for an annexation. Meanwhile, two men idle their time away playing chess.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin); Official Selection (Toronto)
Source: Shemaroo Entertainment

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

This is the first time I’ve seen a Satyajit Ray film in colour.  It does feel a bit strange after being comfortably acquainted with some of his earlier masterworks such as Pather Panchali (1955), The Music Room (1958) and Charulata (1964).  Apparently, it is also Ray’s first—and only—picture in Hindi, which also adds to its unusual quality. 

Nevertheless, this is an excellent film by the legendary Bengali director, whose treatment here is engrossing, taking the seemingly leisurely pastime of chess and turning it into a political symbol of transformative significance. 

There are two separate narrative threads here: one centers on the actual chess players, who are two married men that idle their time away day after day seeking the pleasures of the game;

The other centers on a king who is facing his strongest political test yet—the British (the face of whom is represented by General Outram, played by a scheming Richard Attenborough) plan to force him to abdicate so as to rule what appears to be the last town run by a monarch. 

The Chess Players is set a year before the historical 1857 Indian rebellion, but Ray’s film is an adaptation of a fictional short story by Munshi Premchand, a titan of Hindi literature.  Ray makes it his own, and in fact, a traditional music-and-dance sequence recalls that of The Music Room

But what makes The Chess Players an excellent piece is Ray’s symbolic intercutting of the two narrative threads that draws parallels between what transpires on the chessboard, and in real life in relation to the wrestling of power. 

The chemistry between the two chess-playing friends is also a pleasure to experience as Ray milks both humour and drama from their nuanced conversations, as well as their unique if problematic relationships with their own wives. 

If men can’t even take care of their domestic affairs, how can they rule a country?

Grade: A-


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