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The Chess Players
IMDB Rating: 7.8/10 from NOT RATED votes
Release: 03 Oct 1977 /

The Chess Players

Genre: Comedy, Drama, History
Director: Satyajit Ray,
Stars: , ,
Synopsis: Wazed Ali Shah is the ruler of one of the last independent kingdoms of India. The British, intent on controlling this rich country, have sent general Outram on a secret mission to clear the...

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Critic Reviews


Previous reviews have puzzlingly stated that this is one of the first films to break away from the commercial traditions of Bollywood. In fact, it belongs to a different tradition altogether - art cinema reflecting social themes - which has been going on since at least the early 1950s in India (where it was initially strongly influenced by Italian neo-realism) in the work of Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak. All three were, perhaps significantly, Bengalis, and partook of the rich intellectual traditions of that region, most widely associated with the great poet and national figure Rabindranath Tagore.

The Chess Players is a delight from beginning to end. Taking its cue from the origins of chess as a war-strategy training game, Ray builds two narrative strands in parallel: in the mid-1850s, a pair of idle aristocrats become obsessed by chess and play it all day long, oblivious to the collapse of their domestic relationships that it causes; and in the larger world outside, the scheming and strategy of the chess-board is played out in the real-life scheming of the East India Company as it attempts to manoeuvre the Nawab of Oudh from his throne and bring the state within British jurisdiction. The two plotlines are beautifully brought together at the end when, after hearing that Company troops have moved in and the Nawab has abdicated, the chess-playing friends change their board layout to the Western manner, which involves the king and queen changing their starting positions: "Move over, king. Make way for [queen] Victoria!"

There are fine performances all round: from Amjad Khan as the Nawab, whose infinitely delicate sensibilities lead to infinite puzzlement at the connivings of the less fastidious, to Richard Attenborough as the Company representative in Oudh whose job it is to unseat him, who manages to convey a genuine belief that the state needs to be better run, with an underlying realization that he has no right to do what he is doing. Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey, as the chess players Mirza and Mir, both have extremely expressive faces that can switch from blustering bonhomie to pained hurt, or from deadpan seriousness to quizzical amusement, in a heartbeat. Jaffrey's talent for comedy will come as no surprise to viewers of his English-language films, and he provides the film's finest comic moment when he walks into his bedroom to find his wife trying to hide her lover (his nephew) under the bed - a moment straight out of a Feydeau farce.

Two moments of great artistic beauty stand out for me. First, when the Nawab, overwhelmed by the political situation while in conference with his ministers, seeks solace in a haunting, graceful song he had composed in a happier time (actually composed by Ray - perhaps the director showing us his self-identification with the character). Second, in a scene where Mir is left on his own at the chessboard while Mirza goes off to "see what the trouble is" with his wife, the camera follows Mir as he gets up and goes out into the hallway to see where his friend has got to. The camera then stays still as he retraces his steps, and in the vertical slice of light caused by a gap between two curtains that separate the hallway and the chess room, we see framed the precise point on the chessboard where Mir's hand slowly and surreptitiously comes into view as he sneakily moves one of the pieces. A virtuoso piece of camerawork and compositional framing that, like the film as a whole, never fails to enchant.

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