Day 19 – THE CHESS PLAYERS (Satyajit Ray, India, 1977)
A leisurely and sumptuous period drama by the great Satyajit Ray, a rather gentle satire of two chess enthusiasts so enraptured by their beloved board game battles that they fail to notice that not only are their personal lives in shambles, but political turmoil is beginning to rage literally on their doorstep. A common criticism seems to be that the film isn’t quite “Satyajit Ray” enough, more overstuffed Merchant-Ivory costume drama than neorealist poetry of the type that made the revered Indian director’s international reputation. As there are obviously parallels to be drawn between the movement of chess pieces around a playing board and the narrative’s intricate maneuverings, I suspect that there would be even more resonance for a viewer with a deeper knowledge of the mid-nineteenth century British annexation of the Indian State of Oudh and all of the bureaucratic intricacies surrounding the situation; for the rest of us, however, it functions quite effectively as a cautionary tale regarding needless distraction in the face of grave personal and political peril. Part of the issue might be that not only was Ray working in unfamiliar stylistic terrain, but The Chess Players also entailed a number of other “firsts” as well: working with established and well-known actors, his first time venturing into an unfamiliar culture (Lucknow) and employing a language (Urdu) he himself did not fluently speak, and he had his largest budget ever at his disposal. Whether or not all of these things ultimately proved to be an advantage or a hindrance depends a great deal on the preferences of the individual viewer, but overall I found The Chess Players to be a richly textured cinematic tapestry, a glimpse into an important moment of history and a culture that I had been previously unaware of, all beautifully explicated by a master filmmaker.
[Watch The Chess Players on Fandor here.]