The Chess Players (Premchand & Ray) & the Upper Gangetic Players (1857 & 2017)


The Chess Players or ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ as it was originally named by Premchand was penned as a short story in 1924. It was a satire reflecting on the decadent lives of the Lucknow aristocrats at a time when the Gangetic heartland was witnessing immense political turmoil. Premchand focussed on the lives of two main characters, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, with the reign of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and the eventual annexation by the British playing in the background. The story portrayed how the obsession of the eponymous characters with the game of chess rendered them impotent in disposal of their duties towards society and family. Premchand is brilliant in his characterizations of Mirza & Mir, their blinkered existence in pursuit of an endless chess  game with no stakes other than their egos. He leaves it to the readers to draw  their conclusions on how the indifference and decadent lifestyles of the aristocrats contributed to the collapse of the Nawabs reign.

So, when Satyajit Ray decided to foray into Hindi movies, his choice of Premchand’s short story as the base script was quite interesting. While showcasing the lives of the two friends pretty much in line with the original story, he also adds his individual touch by bringing to the fore the political machinations of the British in their attempt to usurp the kingdom of Awadh. Instead of taking the common route of large scale sets to glamorise the opulence of the Nawabs, he creates the necessary impact by focussing on smaller, but more detailed frames. The actors are extremely elegant, dialogues are witty and  perfectly cued, costumes and sets are well researched and detailed, so that the lifestyle of that era is superbly encapsulated in the three epigrammatic tracks of – the 2 chess players, the scenes in the British residents office and finally the palace scenes showing the king at play and in contemplation of the imminent threat. Ray in his characteristic style is detached from the proceedings and seems quite amused at the king’s posturing. Probably it is this lack of Ray’s passionate involvement which dilutes the film’s impact. Everyone in Lucknow, be it the king or the chess players seem to be resigned to their fate and give in without a real fight. There is a lengthy scene, where the king mouths his indignation against the unscrupulous British for wanting to take over Oudh inspite of him being so loyal and co-operative in the past and appears poised to fight for his rights, but eventually when coming face to face with the British resident, lamely hands over the crown without a whimper!Ray also tinkers with the ending where the 2 friends instead of killing each other over the game, simply get hurt and decide to befriend each other again realizing that there is nothing else to look forward to except their daily game of chess! This film won him the Filmfare award for best director in 1978 and was the Indian entry for Best Foreign Language movie at 51st Academy Awards.

The British annexation if Oudh was followed by the Indian rebellion in 1857. Starting with the Sepoy Mutiny in Meerut, the uprising quickly spread to other areas of the upper Gangetic plain and Central India till it was subdued in an year and half by the British. The rebellion was marked by gruesome violence and butchering of civilians by both warring sides.

Fast forward 160 years, chess game strategies have been replaced by social media politics with supporters of varied political players pushing through their propoganda on various online networking platforms. If the 1857 political scene was marked by the apathetic attitude of the upper class gentry, it  was quite the opposite in the Uttar Pradesh state elections in 2017. The ultra conscious upper middle class waged their own wars, with a marked division of opinion, which though harmless and bloodless on paper was quite effective in destroying friendships and pushing the agenda of their chosen leaders.

Without getting into comparisons of who in 2017 are akin to the 1857 players, would like to draw some similarities amongst the winners and losers of the two separate periods:

1. Nationalist vs a Regional view (going by what was portrayed) – While opinion is divided over whether the 1857 uprising should be categorized as the 1st Indian war of Independence, I am inclined to favour the view that it was not so. None of the primary players on the Indian side – the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah  Zafar, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Nana Sahib & Tantia Tope as Maratha representatives or the sepoys had a largely nationalist Outlook. They were more keen on protecting their territories from British annexation. The British on the other hand were very focused on bringing the entire nation under their control and ruling over it. Cut to 2017, the BJP showcased themselves as a National party in contrast to others who were seen more as regional players.

2. Religion at the core: it was the tallow (derived from beef and pork) greased cartridges which the Sepoys were required to bite off before using that triggered the revolt and saw Hindus and Muslims share common ground to protect their religious beliefs. In 2017, while caste and religion played an important role in ticket distribution, the winning party while proclaiming an agenda of “with everyone and for everyone’s development” did seem to have a strong religious affiniation going by the immediate decisions in the aftermath of the win.

3. Strategy and organizational strength – the British were undoubtedly master strategists who bounced back strongly after the initial setbacks. Other than their military strength, they also bought over the support of other regional players like the Sikhs and ensured that the rebels we’re isolated in their cause. In 2017, the BJP displayed superiority in both – muscle and  brain power. Through the support of RSS, they had a very well oiled organizational base and were able to penetrate the very basic caste equations.

4. Superior resources – the British had better rifles and monetary resources, thanks to the support of the other Indian princely states, in 2017 the winners had Demonetization on their side!

5. Superior leadership of winners with a will to win: in both eras the winners were definitely more on track in their plans ( whether by hook or crook is another matter). The losers while not lacking in leaders, did have some who like Ray scripted in his movie, liked the crown on their head but were not really keen on ruling. As Nawab Wajid Ali Shah desperately cries out in Ray’s movie – ” what else can a king do if not rule” which pretty much summarizes the inner feeling of some of the key losers.

As history shows, the cycle of birth, growth, degeneration and decline of political dynasties is likely to continue and it is just matter of time before a new thought and perspective replaces existing polarizations and puts in place a new social order.