The chess players or “shatranj ke khiladi” originally a short story by munshi Premchand has over the years witnessed many adaptations, but the adaption that actually stands out is its visual adaption in the form of a feature film and that too by Satyajit ray. Usually movie adaption alters the story line according to the interest of viewers but here ray adds all new dimensions to the text. This visual does not just become a cinematic pleasure but a text in itself. Apart from what the original text provides the movie adds text of its own which provide not only a context to the main story but it actually portrays an alternative story
The text by Premchand is a satirical take on the declining feudal tendencies and the decaying feudal lords who refuse to change according to the changing times. But while the text is at most study of psyche of decaying elite class and critique of degrading social values, the film provides historical voice to the story and its characters by introducing two new characters which though not absent are dealt in just passing references in the original text- Britishers and Nawab Wajid Ali shah. So the story of decaying feudal classes also tells the story of the process of conquest of Awadh, of the rulers that ruled or rather misruled the territories and above all the perception of Britishers towards Indian state which not only becomes a justification for their usurpation of power but also the perception about Indian society that as depicted in the movie as something exotic and beyond the comprehension of the colonial bureaucrats. This was perhaps the underlying motive of the britishers- creation of what we call “colonial knowledge” which devalues the indigenous value system or mould it accordingly so that it becomes an useful category for the government to rule. we will discuss this in detail
While studying the movie as a source one must be aware of the medium that is being used. In story whereas the narrative is more important in a movie depiction or presentation holds the key. Here we need to know certain things about this particular movie. Firstly this film belongs to what is known as “art house” cinema which is often made for a niche audience, at the same time this is a highly glossy extravagant and expensive as per satyajit ray’s standards. So the target audience if not all the masses were more than just intellectual audience (making use of amitabh bacchan’s voiceover). Thus this movie could be seen differently by different audience. For masses the movie deals with over indulgence of two lords in chess and simultaneous takeaway of power from a poet king (with whom masses can sympathize) but for a scholar this movie has lot of hidden meanings and metaphors which is difficult to comprehend by lay audience. For history student this acts as a guide to study the political instability of the period due to external conflicts but more due to internal inefficiency of the structure. We can sense the future of the kingdom when the ruler Wajid Ali shah in a scene admits that while making judgments he is actually thinking of poems and composing songs. audience here can actually sense the doom of the regime as well as the chess players who seem to reside in a parallel universe unmoved either by the family matters or the troublent conditions. In a sense the movie narrative considerably differs from dominant view of Indian history of treating Britishers as looters. The movie gives voice to the British in their concern of mismanagement of Awadh but here we can see underlying critique within the concern which is that the mismanagement or lack of efficient administration are in comparison to the British ideals of development and efficient administration
Another allegory that Satyajit ray makes use of, makes its presence felt in the opening and closing scenes of the movie. In the starting scenes one lord asks the other to play chess in different form where queen is supreme and not king but he refuse. But by the end he lifts the queen and says that this is the new way of playing. For laymen the scene may not hold importance except for its cinematic value. But for a historian this scene of barely few seconds tells us so much about the period. Firstly by the time conquest started it was evident that the power will shift from petty kings to queen of Britain but it was not until the end of conquest did they realize the importance of the event and by then the only option left for survival was following the queen’s way. Secondly it depicts in a way a break in the political structure existing till then. A new game of chess actually reflects a new political regime which will dictate the rest of political discourse of the region. Thirdly and very importantly it also means that the Lords were not unaware of what was going on at the pan level but they were perhaps expecting that this change will not affect them and thus they were indifferent to the changes
A few critics of the film criticized Satyajit ray for presenting the colonial government in a positive light and presenting Wajid Ali shah as an effeminate king. This fact can be validated from two major scenes of the film. One of the most iconic scenes of the movie was the one where the British official discusses about the Indian conditions with his subordinate. Here we don’t find the Britishers as lusty for power but rather as people concerned about the affairs of the state. But as we can point out to this criticism that the film is essentially a satire as opposite to his usual dark movies and satyajit ray makes use of irony very well. He himself responded to the criticism that truly the character of Wajid Ali shah is similar in records and popular memory as he had portrayed that of a weak ruler. Another observation is that the movie has many hidden meanings and as portrayed in the story by Premchand that the Awadhi culture and political sphere was on its decline and Britishers made use of it by acquiring the state in the garb of ill management. The concepts of ill governance and management of the territory were essentially based on British ideals of rule and governance.
Another point that is actually pointed out by Fatima Rizvi is how the changes erupted even within the various textual versions that between the Hindi and Urdu versions of the same story written by Premchand himself under two different titles “shatranj ke khiladi” in Hindi and “shatranj ki baazi” in Urdu. What Rizvi points out that since a story, idioms, words, phrases, expressions represent a particular cultural milieu often the cultural nuances of the words are lost in translation. Also Rizvi points out not only premchand used two different titles, these were were actually two different text in terms of the targeted audience. The language was much more diluted and rhetorical for Urdu Persianized elitist version as compared to Sanskritised Hindi version meant for a larger audience and made much more stronger sarcastic remarks on the declining aristocratic class and its vain gloriousness. The Urdu version seems to convey a feeling of pity for the tragic end faced by the chess players. So the altering of the meaning of the text was not initiated by Satyajit ray but by premchand himself. Ray used it to satire not just on the declining feudalism but also on the coming of the Britishers through clever usage of idioms and visuals. One of the most important symbolism that comes into our mind comes in the very end of the movie when after the dethroning of nawab wajid ali the two chess players start playing, ignorant of the political turmoil, near a desolated area. The death of the chess players could only portray the unfaithful end of the declining feudal lords but ray conveyed a larger political message by not only keeping them alive but also making them play a new version of chess, a version where the queen is the supreme (the pun is very obvious).
Reena dubey somehow sees elements of subaltern in ray’s work. According to her, though he was not directly related to the subalterns the prevailing conditions of Bengal in the 1970’s must have had some impact on him. She sees in the film the dynamics of “colonial interaction” which is more of intervention than interaction. She cites between those interactions and the interactions seen in works like “Robinson Crusoe”. That is to exemplify, legitimize and enhance the value of the colonial rule or the imperial nation the culture, polity and society of the colonized society needs to be devalued. It is in this context we can trace the effeminate portrayal of the Indian ruling class, here the Indian ruling class become the subaltern class with their interaction with the colonizers. A very important scene of this devaluation of Indigenous agency is a dialogue between General Outram (Sir Richard Attenborough) and Captain Weston (Tom Alter)
Outram: Tell me, Weston, you know the language, you know the people here- I mean, what kind of a poet is the King? Is he any good, or is it simply because he’s the king they say he’s good?
Weston: I think he’s rather well, Sir.
Outram: You do, eh?
Weston: Yes, Sir.
Outram: Do you know any of his stuff?
Weston: I know some, Sir.
Outram: Well, can you recite it? Do you know it by heart?
Weston: (taken aback): Recite it, Sir?
Outram: Yes, I’m not a poetry man. Many soldiers are. But I’m curious to know what it sounds like. I rather like the sound of Hindustani.
(Weston remains silent, slightly ill at ease.)
Outram: Are they long, these poems?
Weston: Not the ones I know, Sir.
Outram: Well, go on man, out with it!
(Weston recites a four-line poem.)
Outram: Is that all?
Weston: That’s all, Sir.
Outram: Well, it certainly has the virtue of brevity. What the hell does it mean, if anything?
Weston: He’s speaking about himself, Sir.
Outram: Well what’s he saying? It’s nothing obscene, I hope?
Weston: No, Sir.
Outram: Well, what’s he saying?
Weston (coughing lightly):
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.
That’s all, Sir.
Outram: H’m. Doesn’t strike me as a great flight of fancy, I’m afraid.
(Outram rises from his chair slowly.)
Weston: It doesn’t translate very well, Sir.
Outram: And what about his songs? He’s something of a composer, I understand? Are they any good, these songs?
Weston: They keep running in your head, Sir. I find them quite attractive. Some of them.
Outram: I see.
Weston: He’s really quite gifted, Sir.
(Outram glances briefly at Weston and begins to pace the room thoughtfully.)
Weston: He’s also fond of dancing, Sir.
Outram: Yes, so I understand. With bells on his feet, like nautch girls. Also dresses up as a Hindu god, I’m told.
Weston: You’re right, Sir. He also composes his own operas.
Outram: Doesn’t leave him much time for his concubines, not to speak of the affairs of state. Does he really have 400 concubines?
Weston: I believe that’s the count, Sir.
Outram: And 29 ‘muta’ wives. What the hell are muta wives?
Weston: Muta wives, Sir. They’re temporary wives.
Outram: Temporary wives?
Weston: Yes, Sir. A muta marriage can last for three days, or three months, or three years. Muta is an Arabic word.
Outram: And it means temporary?
Weston: No, Sir.
(Outram raises his eyebrows.)
Weston: It means-err, enjoyment.
Outram: Oh. Oh yes I see. Most instructive. And what kind of a king do you think all this makes him, Weston? All these various accomplishments?
Weston (smiling): Rather a special kind, Sir, I should think.
(Outram stops pacing, stiffens, and turns sharply to Weston.)
Outram: Special? I would’ve used a much stronger word than that,
Weston: I’d have said a bad king. A frivolous, effeminate, irresponsible, worthless king.
Weston: He’s not the first eccentric in the line-
Outram (interrupting): Oh I know he’s not the first, but he certainly deserves to be the last. We’ve put up with this nonsense long enough. Eunuchs, fiddlers, nautch-girls and ‘muta’ wives and God know what else. He can’t rule, he has no wish to rule, and therefore he has no business to rule.
Weston: There I would agree with you, Sir.
Outram: Good. I am glad to hear that. I have it in mind to recommend you for a higher position when we take over-
Weston: Take over, Sir?
Outram: Take over, Weston. And any suspicion that you hold a brief for the King would ruin your chances. You remember that.
Here we are reminded of an argument by Timothy Mitchell. That is, the orient is always seen as “exotic”, static, monolithic bloc. They are seen as an artifact in themselves. A culture that is very different (and of course, backward) than the European homeland. A culture that has not and most probably can never reach to the standards of Europe. No character is villainous here, they are all acting out their culture prejudices, their insecurities, their confusions, aspirations, what if all this is shaped by generations of pre existing beliefs and pre conceived notions. Ray laid bare the inner insecurities of the characters. A poet king who knows that his reign will end anytime but he is content thinking that even if admittedly he wasn’t a very strong ruler, he at least is very popular among its people and that his dethronement will most probably have no effect on his literary pursuits. He leaves the throne murmuring-
“छोड़ चले जो लखनऊ नगरी
कहो हाल आदम पर क्या गुजरी”
Similar indecisiveness mars the chess players of any thoughts of leaving their passion for chess for a time being even during crisis. So they drive off such thoughts by saying- “we can’t cope with our wives how will we cope with the company’s army!!!”
Thus, what we see in the analysis of shatranj ke khiladi is a political sub plot given to a story making it not only historically accurate but also politically potent to take a dig at the political conditions. Thus a literary story becomes a political satire. though the story itself wasn’t bereft of sarcasm, Satyajit ray gave voice to those characters in the film which were unheard in the story thus expanding the horizon of the effect of the decline of the lords and the coming of the Britishers. Colonialism became a voice of the narrative rather than a background.
- premchand, munshi- “shatranj ke khiladi”
- Rizvi, Fatima- “Politics of Language and Cultural Representation: Premchand’s “Shatranj ke Khilari” in Translation”
- Dube, Reena- ” Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players and Postcolonial Theory Culture, Labour and the Value of Alterity “
- Ray, satyajit- “shatranj ke khiladi”(1977)