Satyajit Ray's scrupulous period piece, a deft study of two chess-crazed zamindars on the eve of British annexation, is as meaningful for what it leaves out as what it includes. Set in 1856, the film centers on the East India Company’s heavy-handed ousting of Wajid Ali Shah, Nawab of Oudh, a loyal client state of the British since the 18th century. Amjad Khan’s portrayal hews closely to the history: the Nawab was known for the quality of his poetry, the size of his harem, the depth of his passion for thumri singing and kathak dancing, and the strength of his (Muslim) piety.
Ray treats the players in Britain’s great game evenly and dispassionately. The Nawab is accomplished, intelligent, and conscious of his own unfitness for rule. His zamindars are lost in dreams of their ancestors' military glory, comfortably adjusted to their reduced place in Britain’s India. The British are brash but not totally craven: the Company’s man in Lucknow, Sir James Outram (Richard Attenborough), is troubled by the injustice of Britain’s claims to Oudh, while his adjutant and translator has swatches of the Nawab’s Urdu by heart. The overall mood of the film is resigned and bittersweet; it’s clear from the start that couplets won’t stop any bullets, and Ray wastes no time trying to convince us otherwise.
What intrigued me most about the movie was its case for the power of resignation. The Nawab’s finest political moment comes when he agrees against all justice to step down, realizing how bloody a revolt would be for his people. Likewise the chess players, whose friendship weathers marital storms, cuckoldry, bald cowardice, and finally the British Annexation, show nobility of a kind in accepting their fate with a “this too must pass” insouciance that throws their caste in a better light than the earlier sabre rattling and obsession with pedigrees. But Ray’s politics speak most loudly in what he chooses to leave out of the movie: that the grab for Oudh sparked the great Indian Mutiny, or Rebellion, of 1857—the most successful act of resistance to British rule until Gandhi. (It was the events of 1857 that provoked the British to end the East India Company and inaugurate the Raj.)
According to his website, Ray may have intended the film as a comment on Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency from 1975-1977, which I guess would mean putting the indolent but principled Wajid Ali Shah in contrast to the draconian, power-hungry Gandhi of those years. But I think Ray’s making a larger point about the nature of art and politics by questioning the efficacy of action—any action—in a world made up of transient shades of gray. What the chess players and the artist seem to share in the movie is a radical detachment from their immediate circumstances that allows them to see a bigger picture. The poet-king, even more so than the amateur enthusiasts of the movie’s title, doesn’t think in terms of this or that move so much as the game as a whole, where a skilled player often sees the end in the opening moves. Wajid Ali Shah quickly perceives the British are going to win—and, beyond that, that India (or at least his poetry) will survive their intrusion*—just as Ray, from his perch behind the camera, sees the birth of the Raj, or the Mutiny, or the State of Emergency, as moves in a game whose outcome shows itself most clearly to the artist, whose job it becomes to remember, condense and record with as much sympathy and dimension as possible.**
If the story has a hero, it's not a person but a poem: Wajid Ali Shah's own thumri, "Babul mora Naihar chhooto jaay" ("As we leave our beloved city of Lucknow/see what we have to go through ..."), for which the movie acts as commentary and gloss.
*Which it did; Wajid Ali's "Babul mora Chhooto jaay" was a hit in 1938's Street Singer and is still sung today.
**See, for instance, this exchange between Ray and a critic of his "effete and effeminate" portrayal of Wajid Ali Shah.
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