I’m particularly looking forward to the 100 Years of Indian Cinema strand in this year’s Bradford International Film Festival. One of the highlights is Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film The Chess Players. I was a fan of Ray’s films up until the mid 1970s but I haven’t seen most of his later films. Perhaps that is not so surprising. The 1970s was when the attention of many cinephiles and film scholars turned towards the New Indian Cinema of Mrinal Sen and Kumar Shahani amongst others. Ray was suddenly out of favour. Looking back now it seems clear to me that the complexity of Ray’s cinema was not properly appreciated and that many of the assumptions about his work were simply wrong. We’ve covered some of the necessary re-appraisal earlier on this blog and we hope to do more this summer with the BFI’s release of the restored print of Mahanagar (1963) and the screening of several more Ray films at BFI Southbank. All our Ray postings are available via this ‘Satyajit Ray’ tag.
The Chess Players sees Ray exploring a double form of colonialism. In the mid-19th century, the Nawab of Oudh (present day Lucknow) was the ruler of the state and the last representative of the Mughals in that region. The British East India Company were poised to take complete control before eventually giving it up to the British Government and the India Office after the 1857 rising by Indian troops of the company. The Nawab was an ineffective ruler but a great patron of the arts and this becomes one of the discourses of the film. The coloniser-colonised relationship already existed between the Shia Muslim rulers and the local people (mainly Hindus) and involves ethnicity and religion as well as political power. This is then doubled by the arrival of the British as the new colonisers with a new set of power relationships. Ray adapts his film from a story by Munshi Premchand – written in 1924 with the British Raj still in place – and adds some extra scenes in his analysis. The chess players are from the Muslim ruling class and it is their ‘lassitude’ which will allow the British (in the form of Richard Attenbrough’s General Outram) to take over. I’m looking forward to some animated sequences – typical of the devices that Ray used in his films from the mid-1960s onwards. I hope that the festival audience will see a film that challenges some of the assumptions about Ray’s cinema.