Friday, June 19, 2009

Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players)

Based on Munshi Premchand's story of the same name this masterpiece from Satyajit Ray brilliantly depicts accession of the kingdom of Awadh by East India Company. Premise of the story is comparison of the accession to a game of chess. A game of chess is a war where troops are deployed, strategies are laid out but no lives are lost and no blood is shed. And so was the accession.

The movie goes beyond just a description of historical turn of events and shows the bafflement of the British with Indian ruling class. General Outram who has to oversee the annexation is ignorant of India and is venomously contemptuous of its culture and practices. He is amazed at debauchery of ruler of Awadh who dances with "bells in his feet like a nautch girl", "also dresses up like a Hindoo god" and has 400 concubines. And yet despite being so engrossed in worldly pleasures still is a pious man who prays five times a day. Patronage of singers, artists and performers and even indulgence of the rulers in these activities used to be a source of bemusement for East India Company officers for a long time.

General Outram's distaste and disinterest of Urdu poetry is not matched by Captain Weston (who else can play a indophile British with impeccable accent better than Tom Alter) whose mere presence dilutes the polarity of two cultures. The character shows not all Britishers were disdainful of Indian ways. It is a pity that despite Alter's histrionic skills and command in Hindi as well as Urdu he got the evil foreigner roles in numerous Indian movies.

The story is quite sympathetic towards Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, so sensitively portrayed by Amjad Khan that you can't believe he is the same guy who played the hideous dacoit Gabbar Singh in Sholay. On one hand he loves worldly things, songs, dances [a beautiful thumri choreographed by Shree Birju Maharaj], flies kites and yet he is a god fearing pious man. He acknowledges his shortcomings as a ruler yet is resentful of the British for dethroning him and having to give his crown to a mere General of East India Company. Despite his flaws he is loved by the masses and British know this so a violent takeover is out of question and here lies the key of the story, this is the point which makes annexation similar to a game of chess.

The movie juxtaposes the power play of aristocrats with life of two nabobs, portrayed by Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar, who are avid players of chess. The noblemen get so engrossed in their game of chess that they forget responsibilities, neglect their households and even start playing chess near their lawyer's death bed in the pretense of visiting him!The two have inherited their wealth and status by inheritance due to bravery of their ancestors. Though they boast of courage yet they escape to a nearby village for a game of chess towards the end when rumors of annexation are rife.

The intricacies of the game of chess also highlight cultural differences between Indian subcontinent and the British. Any chess enthusiast from South Asian subcontinent would (should) know there are vernacular versions of the game in terms of placement and movement of chess pieces. The queen in formal, international (and British here) version is called a Vazir (minister to the ruler) in Indian version. This fact is highlighted at the end after the British armies march peacefully to take over Awadth one of the nabobs claim that the time of Vazir is gone and now its time for the queen to rule. And the ultimate difference between the two ways? Well the English way is faster, which is a take on rapid industrialization brought by British.

Other noticeable performances are from Shabana Azmi as wife of Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Victor Bannerjee as the Prime Minister of Wajid Ali Shah. Victor Bannerjee doesn't has a long screen presence but he just captures the moments without even speaking, notice his expressions during the thumri and you will get something ugly is going to come.

Art direction gives really transports you to the that era and Musical score though is used so well throughout yet stands brilliantly at some places like when the two Mirza play chess in lawyer's house or at the starting.

Some of my favourite moments:

The starting scene has two nabobs playing chess and there is a black background but the beauty of this comes to the fore when Mirza Sajjad Ali's servant emerges from the darkness for hukka refill thats when role of the background comes into play, depicting how there is nothing other than chess in their universe. The same technique is used for Wajid Ali Shah's introduction too.

The use of animation and Amitabh Bachchan's narration in his rich baritone sets the mood and places the story in right context which shows narrative capabilities of Satyajit Ray.

Such is the madness of the chess players that when Sajjad Ali's wife steals the chess pieces they use vegetables in place of the pieces!

Wajid Ali Shah resigning to his fate by reciting 'Jab chhod chale Lakhnou nagari...'

Here are some of Wajid Ali Shah's words:

सदमा ना पहुंचे कोई मेरे जिस्म-ऐ-ज़ार पर
अहिस्ता फूल डालना मेरी मजार पर

हर चंद ख़ाक में था मगर ता फलक गया
धोखा है आसमान का मेरे गुबार पर

Wound not my bleeding body,
Throw flowers gently on my grave,
Though mingled with the earth,
I rose up to the skies,
People mistook my rising dust for the heavens