The great thing about chess is that it can be used as a metaphor for just about anything; relationships, warfare, even the EU Common Agricultural Policy, the possibilities are endless. In The Chess Players, Satyajit Ray uses it as a way of examining and critiquing British rule in India.
Satyajit Ray is easily one of the greatest film directors of all time, but hasn’t necessarily received the recognition he deserves in the West. While he mastered almost every genre of film-making going, I always feel he was at his best when covering society and politics. The film focusses on the East India Company in the 1850s, and how it manoeuvres to take over the Kingdom of Oudh, one of the last areas of India remaining nominally independent.
The Chess Players got wider distribution in Britain and America than most of Ray’s earlier work, largely because it features Richard Attenborough as General Outram representing the interests of the British government. He uses the excuse of the King of Oudh’s indifference to ruling to try to force him to sign a new treaty, effectively handing all administrative power to Great Britain, while abdicating at the same time. The reason for this action is that the Company needs the revenues from Oudh to finance its military campaigns elsewhere. Unfortunately while Attenborough is one of the finest actors Britain’s ever produced, his accents do tend to waver sometimes and here is no exception. Luckily Ray didn’t write the part as a two-dimensional cardboard cut out villain; rather he’s a shrewd if unscrupulous diplomat, willing to use every trick in the book to get what he wants.
The film also makes good use of parallel narratives. While the overthrow of the King is one part, the second is a much smaller scale story of two wealthy members of the elite, obsessed with the game of chess. They spend all day playing, ignoring the wider world around them. One of their wives is infuriated by this, the other uses her husbands long absences at his friend’s house as the perfect opportunity to have an affair. Of particular note is Saeed Jaffrey as the nobleman with a cheating wife. He’s appeared in almost every British TV show of the last thirty years and never fails to be anything other than excellent.
Their discussions about the philosophy of chess and politics mirrors the events taking place in court as the King considers the ramifications of giving up his throne. While he himself admits that he’s not been the most attentive ruler, the Company’s willingness to ignore its treaty commitments is clearly wrong. The pathos Amjad Khan brings to the role is heartbreaking.
In terms of the wider political situation the film explores how Britain, with its relatively small forces, managed to conquer the whole of India. Initially at least it could be argued that Britain had a slight technological advantage, but that doesn’t fully explain their success. Ray seems to be suggesting here that the Indian ruling class were at least partly to blame, and put their own economic interests ahead of independence.
Making use of sumptuous colours, narration and animation, The Chess Players is an absolute gem of a film that manages to be both funny and sad at the same time. As a political movie it critiques both British colonialism and Indian elites. It also makes the point that for the upper middle classes in India it didn’t always matter who governed them. For those with the wealth not to have to work the outside world can be easily ignored, while it tends to be those on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder who suffer. It should be noted though that the film is set just a year before the Indian rebellion of 1857. This was probably the high point of British rule in terms of their absolute power as the Empire was already in slow decline. As one of the characters in the film might argue, politics like chess is often a long game.
Here is a clip from the The Chess Players that introduces the historical background: