Shatranj Ke KhilaRi (The Chess Players)

I just happened to catch Shatranj Ke KhilaRi on youtube (you can see the whole movie on youtube, though I am not sure if there is a free subtitled version.. for that you may have to pay). I saw this movie in the 1980s and I remember watching it as:

  1. A Satyajit Ray movie. Hence serious, arty. Deep.
  2. A movie that (brilliantly, obviously since it was by Satyajit Ray, see above) captured the (unequal) chess match between the perfidious English and the decadent Indian nobility. . i.e. a “history movie” that tells us something profound about the British conquest of India.
  3. A movie with a message.

Now I saw it after 35 years and it seems to me that these are exactly the worst things about the movie. It is in fact a VERY funny, beautifully directed, brilliantly acted period piece that anyone can enjoy without thinking “art movie”.  But it is NOT a good depiction of how and why the British conquered India. The annexation of Oudh was just that, the annexation of Oudh. Wajid Ali Shah was a very unique personality, a gentleman and a patron of the arts, but hardly a real ruler. His deposition did not require any great chess move. The Oudh nobility had decayed long before this event and the conversion of Oudh from indirect rule (with British officers manning the Oudh army and supervising tax collection, etc) to direct EIC rule was typical of many similarly decayed nawab-doms, but NOT typical of the British conquest of India. It may be that the decaying hulk of the Mughal empire was just as depicted in that movie, but the Mughals did not rule most of India by that time. The stylized story of perfidious albion conquering the decaying Mughals was true enough of Bengal, Bihar and Oudh, but India is much more than that…The conquest of most of it was a much more serious affair, fought against harder men than Wajid Ali Shah (Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan, the Marathas, the Sikh Empire, etc). It was an unequal contest in the sense that Europeans in general were far more advanced in science, state organization and military arts, but some of the rulers who held real power in their domains (Marathas, Sikhs, Mysore, Nizam of Haiderabad, even Nepal) did make efforts to modernize their military and many of them did put up a fight. They did not lose because they were composing music, organizing kathak dance or playing chess, they lost because they were disunited, and the British proved better than them at most things that matter in statecraft. To take this movie as a metaphor for that struggle or as a good depiction of it is a disservice to history. This may be a good enough description of the annexation of Oudh, but every reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes seems to take it as a great depiction of the British conquest of India, which seems wrong to me.

That said, it is still a good movie. Ignore the politics, enjoy the acting, the comedy, the dialog. Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffery are both great as the aristocats playing chess while their wives have affairs or get sexually frustrated, Victor Bannerjee as the prime minister, Shabana Azmi as the wife, all do a great job, though the best performance is by Amjad Khan as Wajid Ali Shah.  Tom Alter (the late American-Indian actor.. I assume that would be the term; if an Indian born in America is Indian-American, then an American born in India would be American-Indian?) is also good as the Urdu speaking English officer advising General Outram.

My favorite dialog: Wajid Ali Shah asking his prime minister why he is crying? Did Outram recite some poetry or sing a song to him? because only music and poetry can bring a real man to tears!

The hilarious cuckolding scene:

Complete Movie:

Postscript: A few links to reviews from the time

New York Times. 


Washington Post (enriched by the comprehension of an exceptional film artist, who perceives clearly what this historical parable signifies for his country and his compatriots.)

Published by

Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

12 thoughts on “Shatranj Ke KhilaRi (The Chess Players)”

    1. In 1914, Munshi Premchand started writing in Hindi. By this time, he was already reputed as a fiction writer in Urdu.[9] Sumit Sarkar notes that the switch was prompted by the difficulty of finding publishers in Urdu.[27] His first Hindi story Saut was published in the magazine Saraswati in December 1915, and his first short story collection Sapta Saroj was published in June 1917.

      The irony of “Hindi’s” greatest novellist having his education and training in Urdu is never lost..

  1. The movie is based on Premchand’s short story of the same name. The story only depicts the two chess players and their meetings. All the scenes with Sleeman and Outram – not to mention Wajid Ali Shah and his nautch girls – are cinematic additions, completely absent from the original story.

    The story is an allegory for the state of decadence of the Mughal feudal elite, not British shrewdness or perfidy or anything like that.

    1. I agree, but check out the reviews of the movie.. it is repeatedly presented as some sort of artistic (and brilliant) comment on the British conquest of India.. I am adding some reviews to the end of the post.

      1. I expect a lot of people who have neither seen the film nor read the story will express strong opinions. 🙂

        Ideological slants aside, the movie is a sheer delight of sensual pleasure. Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey’s delivery of lines, the memorable scene between Sleeman and Outram, the signature Ray shot of the English army marching while the boy watches, the comic asides of Mir Sahab’s philandering wife … Hell, just the awesome kathak recital is worth the price of admission.

        1. That kathak number by Saswati Sen was awesome indeed. She was a year junior to me in school. Even as a teenager, she was an accomplished dancer.

          I have read the story and seen the film (three times). I don’t know if either Premchand or Satyajit Ray meant Shatranj ke Khilari as a unitary explanation or one of the many snap shots of divided India’s mindset of the time. While certain parts of India put up spirited efforts to counter the British takeover, Delhi, Awadh and Bengal fell without much resistance. The indifference of the aristocracy to the political upheaval as depicted by the chess players was a window to the prevailing attitude of much of Indian society. After all, the British used Indian soldiers (many of them Sikh) to quell the rebellion of 1857.
          Anyway, I love this movie. All the actors were top notch and the background narration by Amitabh Bachchan was superb.

  2. I mean like we have to show the British as both as winners as well as we were sort of “equal” to them, so best way to show them as Machiavellian. That’s the idea. If you read a lot of hindi poetry/ short stories(pretty sure its true of urdu as well) their is harking back to the “golden age” where they want to show themselves as equal/ better than their counterpart to compensate for the real world losses.

    i think the message of the short story was sort of on those lines, we had everything but our folks were a bit disinterested. So British won. As if the interested one really put much of a fight(this is where i disagree with Omar on supposed Maratha/Tipu “resistance” )

  3. Tom Alter was not “American Indian” he was Indian or “Anglo Indian” depending on your perspective in that he had Indian and English ancestry.

  4. This is such a lovely movie!
    Had an interesting backstory, unlike most other end-to-end Ray movies:

    “The delays were caused by Ray’s painstaking research into the time and the life of Awadh’s colourful and tragic Nawab Wajid Ali Shah…Ray also made a Bengali film, Jana Aranya, in the interrim…slew of illnesses delayed the shooting – Sanjeev Kumar’s heart attack, Amjad Khan’s airplane accident, and Jindal laid up in hospital of a liver abcess. Also, Ray’s band of technicians accused Jindal of under-paying them. For a while, there was animosity between the producer and the director. After the film was made, the four distributors who had agreed to buy the film, backed out. For a year, Shatranj ke Khilari did not get a commercial release.”

  5. I think Satyajid was very interested in decaying nobility. This is a recurrent theme in many of his movies. Ofcourse he belonged to one of the great families in Calcutta and was deeply immersed in the Calcutta nobility. I think he felt very familiar with upperclass gentry in helpless decline. Perhaps he wanted to recapture thaat theme again and again.

  6. Finally, a topic I love talking about. 🙂 This Indo-Pak slugfest just blots out all other interesting topics.

    First, my blunt opinion on the movie – it sucks. Like all art movies, it is just too tedious and slow to be entertaining. In fact this is the reason art movies died out. They just couldn’t understand the basic fact that the primary role of movies is to entertain.

    There is no reason why a movie can’t be historically accurate (at least mostly), and still be entertaining. (Example the Gladiator, Umrao Jaan, Border). A little bit of nice songs and poetry combined with some background music would have made a whole world of difference.

    Secondly, the most important point. Satyajit Ray changed the original story of Premchand in a crucial manner. In Premchand’s story, the Nawabs draw their swords when a jibe is thrown over the character of one of the protagonist’s wife, and both die fighting while the Bristish army is marching on Awadh. In Rays’s movie, they both resign to the fate of being cuckolded and having their state being taken over by British, and go back to their game of chess.

    Premchand wanted to show the vanity and vainglorious nature of Awadh Nawabs who could shed their blood in avenging personal insults, but would not lift their finder while their kingdom was being robbed. Ray wanted to highlight the enervated state of Awadh nobility who couldn’t act to save either their personal honor or the national honor.

    I leave it up to the readers to comment whether the Ray’s take on the story was better than Premchand.

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