Satyajit Ray Tom Milne - Essay

Tom Milne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Satyajit Ray's The Chess Players … is the ambivalence with which Ray views the matter of politics and progress, recalling the fact that twenty years ago, in Jalsaghar, he demonstrated how an aristocratic landowner's irredeemable social negligence might yet aspire to a state of grace through his overruling delight in beauty. There, more overtly but no more inescapably than in the new film, Ray's direction recorded the death of a way of life, a suicide willingly undertaken because pure beauty cannot survive untarnished in a crassly material world….

[Ray splits his viewpoint three ways.] Two of these, represented on the one hand by the montage sequence which sketches a concise but enormously expressive account of Britain's relationship with [the Nawabsof Oudh], and on the other by the tale of the two chess players, are governed by the historical determinants of British colonial arrogance and India's obliging submission to superior technology…. [Contrary] to his usual concern for the respect due to his characters' lives …, Ray treats both characters essentially as caricatures to match the cartoon basis of his historical montage.

In a sense, therefore, these two 'viewpoints' cancel each other out: if the march of progress is inevitable in the wake of the British Empire, equally inevitable is the fact—for all the chess players' stout insistence that they will play today but fight tomorrow—that India is not going to find the will to resist. And here Ray's third voice comes in, expressed by the arts whose fantastic flowering under the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah turned Lucknow into the treasure-house of Moslem culture….

Ray, of course, is not naive enough to suggest that artistic talent compensates for misrule….

Ray does not blame his two heroes for preferring the chessboard to the battlefield. Engagingly fantastical (much of the film is wonderfully funny, especially when, after losing their chess set to a disgruntled wife, the pair are frustrated in their attempts to borrow another by the untimely death of its owner and are reduced to improvising pieces out of fruit, nuts and spice bottles), their pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of strife is just as Wajid Ali Shah would have wished.

Tom Milne, "'The Chess Players'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1979 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 48, No. 2, Spring, 1979, p. 125.