Film Thoughts: Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977, Urdu/Hindi, Satyajit Ray: Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Shabana Azmi)

Sunday, August 1, 2010
When I finished Shatranj Ke Khilari, my first film of Satyajit Ray, I was a bit confused. I found the film supremely charming with an extremely humorous, quiet undercurrent throughout, but it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. On top of that, it was in Urdu/Hindi, not Bengali like most of Ray's works.  This plot synopsis from UpperStall makes it sound like quite a serious period film:

“It is 1856, a year before the Great Indian Mutiny and Lucknow, the capital of the kingdom of Awadh is steeped in sensual stupor. Its ruler, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) is more interested in the pursuit of art and culture than ruling his kingdom while two of his fiefs - Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) are obsessed with the game of chess at the expense of their administrative and domestic duties. The British sets its eyes on Awadh and wants to annex it on the pretext of misrule, despite the fact that the kingdom is already under a friendship treaty with the East India Company and provides it with soldiers and money whenever required. The Indian Governor General of that time, Lord Dalhousie entrusts the Resident of Lucknow General Outram (Sir Richard Attenborough) with the unholy job of convincing the Nawab to hand over his kingdom by signing a new treaty. Despite grandiose posturing not to comply with the demands of the Company, Wajid Ali Shah eventually acquiesces and the British army marches into Lucknow while the two landlords continue to play chess at a deserted landscape, indifferent to the historical changes that are occurring under their nose.”

That summary is quite an excellent, albeit overly serious, brief of the essence of the film.  The film actually focuses much of its time on the lives of the two nobleman Mirza and Mir. We see very little of their actual political life and instead see only their hilarious personal lives.

Saeed Jaffrey as Mir Roshan Ali

 Sanjeev Kumar as Mirza Sajjad Ali

The film starts out in a curious way. The camerawork consists of lots of amateur, self-conscious zooming and obvious stills of photographs. Some brief, humorous animations are shown, and the narration by Amitabh Bachchan sounds like a stilted retro educational video. But once the main characters Mirza and Mir began to take center stage, I was utterly and hopelessly charmed. Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey gave incredible performances with hilarious comedic timing and the ability to emote any expression effortlessly. My favorite part of the entire film, hands down!

Shabana Azmi plays Khurshid, Mirza’s wife, who feels lonely and abandoned by her husband’s constant chess playing in their home and lashes out in humorous, petulant ways in her few scenes. One of the cutest scenes is when she finally pins Mirza down on the bed for some lovin’ despite his clear wish to be back in front of his chess board. As she looks down at him and starts to undo his shirt ties, she makes her intentions clear by licking her lips! His scared schoolboy reaction is all the more hilarious. And it makes you want to slap some sense into him- how could he not want to make love to such a stunningly gorgeous Shabana in that scene?

Farida Jalal plays Nafisa, Mirs’ wife, who is having an affair with a handsome younger man Aqueel (Farooque Shaikh) in her home while her husband is off whiling away his hours in endless chess games. Another hilarious scene ensues when her husband catches the lovers at home. The facial expressions and timing in that scene had me in stitches.

Farida Jalal as Nafisa, Mir's wife

 Farooque Shaikh as Aqueel, Nafisa's lover

While these parts of the film with the chess players and their wives were my favorite, the other half of the film covers much more serious ground. Richard Attenborough (yes, the one who directed and produced the 1982 film Gandhi!) plays General James Outram who tries to annex the Kingdom of Avadh (also spelled “Oudh”) led by Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan). I must admit I did not find the scenes surrounding these two characters very engaging. Shah’s initial scenes dwell on showing us his love of arts and women at the expense of ruling his kingdom, and later he gives a long, dramatic dialogue when faced with the tricky politics of British encroachment on his kingdom. I got the feeling that something was lost in translation. However, the one scene that got me was his final scene in which he meets with Outram to give his final decision on abdication. After some talk, the camera focuses close up on his face as he simply stares at Outram with the most heartbroken, pained expression on his face. It’s as if he is a little child, distraught at the prospect that lies before him, who is resorting to puppy eyes in a last-ditch attempt to change the disastrous situation.

Richard Attenborough as General James Outram

Amjad Khan as Wajid Ali Shah

I assume Ray, through the passive characters of the leaders, was trying to make a criticism of apparent similar actions by Indian leaders during the time of British rule and occupation. Given my ignorance of the complexities of Indian politics during the time of British rule and later independence and my not having watched a Satyajit Ray film before this one, I can’t intelligently contribute much analysis about what Ray intended.

However, days after watching the film, the contrast of the bumbling leaders with the serious political situation they faced was still fresh in my mind. I actually felt more of a quiet sadness about the film rather than focusing on its humor as I did when I first finished it. Perhaps the way the film slyly crept into my mind and lodged its ideas there was the sign of Ray’s genius. I do not, however, find the film lending itself to as much analysis as the full-length Upper Stall review I posted above. Reviews like that seem to explain the film in so much serious detail make me wonder if the writers saw a different film than I did. Detailed plot reviews give the whole thing away and create complexity that isn't there!

Enough plot and analysis, it’s now screencap and random-thoughts time!

In the film, a character comments on feeling proud that Chess was invented in India but the English created their own version of it with different (and faster) rules. At first I thought this was supposed to show how little the men knew of world around them, but then I researched and found that it is indeed true! I vaguely thought Chess had begun in East Asia, I think....

Tom Alter as Captain Weston, Outram’s translating assistant, was intriguing with his goofy red moustache and his (to my ears) quite good command of Urdu/Hindi lines.

Real-life leading exponent Saswati Sen gives a Kathak performance in the court of Shah, which was nice enough but a bit underwhelming. Perhaps it was my seeing in the opening credits that Birju Maharaj choreographed the dance that pushed my expectations a bit high. Sen does, however, wear these really cool wide-bottom pants that give the costume a nice twist.

The shirt style below(where the outer piece outlines the chest area) was something I always associated with female Kathak dancers. I didn’t realize men of the time apparently wore a similar design!

Victor Banerjee as the Prime Minister


Attenborough smokin' like a true gent

Examples of the set design

Note: Some online sources spell the film title "Shatranj Ke Khiladi."


  1. nice bird's eye view of a sweet film. (It's spelt both khilari and khiladi). I think ,perhaps, youre too nice a person to see the damning biting sarcasm in Ray's political judgements about the indian bourgoise in this film. I watched it once in LA at the los angeles county museum of art(LACMA) where , when ray tied the film together in the end when(spoiler) the gun owned by one aristocrat does not fire, and the two forgive one another with "we are not even able to manage our wifes at home, how can we manage this country", There was an audible gasp from the audience, who it seems were more the intended target demographic for this drama than you were.

    still , Its funny your comment about shabana azmi licking her lips :D

  2. rameshram - Hello! Thanks for your comment. Yes, I could sense that I was missing out on some subtext or shared cultural experience that would help me understand the point of the film.

    I suppose the film seemed overall to be making a simple point/metaphor regarding British rule and India's role, and I had expected Ray to make a much more complex criticism. I found the cartoons at the beginning humorous but wondered why Ray put them in the film. Any comments on Ray's intentions there?

  3. minai,

    The film was almost universally PANNED when it was released. most people criticising the verythings you didnt like about the film- ray's use of animation, the disconnected drama between the three duos, RAy's not having made a political master treatise, and instead focussing on the wispy personal feelings of the players ..all felt to people like hindi was not satyajit ray's forte, and that he had bitten off more than he could chew by picking this munshi premchand story(which was more a lament about the decline of lucknow, than a fully fledged post colonial piece).

    I have, however been an early and steady supporter and apologist for shatranj.

    The film was made and released in 1977 , a time when india was undergoing a power grab in the "emergency" declared by Indira Gandhi , The cold war world was, on one hand beset by the oil dictatorhips, and in the thrall of hyperinflation, and on the other, places like britain and south America were being overtaken by power grabs by communists trade unions and dictatorships.(this was also the time of the populist islamic revolution in Iran).

    I see the ray film as an urgent wake up call to the burguoise from their ivory tower slumbers in face of naked totalitarian powergrabs.

    Ray's "british" could be ANY populist power grabber. and his lucknow kingdom could be ANY overeducated intellectual lost in their own hypercivilized dream, so they don't see the danger of a richard attenborough type in their midst.

    As regards the criticism that Satyajit ray's political thesis is not mature or that it lacked depth, Im not sure ray WANTED to make mature academic analysis as much as to tell the target audience (the burgoise) to wake up and soon. What he was up against was orwellian propaganda from televisions (both in and outside India) where the stupefying effects of propaganda films on either side was drowning out sane balanced analysis. In my view, this is why he started the film with the animation. he was using the language of propaganda to grab the attention of a thinking man/woman who was losing her/his mind to orwellian propaganda. in my view, also, this is why he didn't use animation as a narrative trope. Once he had your attention, he knew you would be wrapped into the drama.

  4. The metaphor of the chess playing aristocrats losing their kingdom, unlike the conventional use of a metaphor as merely a framing device, I think ray hid his sympathies for the aristocrat- bourgoise in the metaphor and directed the whole film as a damning indictment of them (like pointing a finger and saying YOU are to blame, but doing it very politely). I also think you didn't get warmed to this because while you(kasu) saw the metaphor, and liked the fuddy duddies, you didn't identify with the aristocrats, the way ray wanted his indian(or foreign) bourgoise audience to.

    and I think most negetive criticism of the day came from people that GOT ray's message and simply didn't LIKE it.

  5. rameshram - we've already chatted, but just wanted to formally say a big THANK YOU for the info! Very fascinating insight regarding the propaganda angle- that background makes a big difference.

  6. I came across this when doing my Farooq Sheikh post today. You have packed in a lot in the review especially given that you wouldn't have been aware of the conext of the film prior to watching it!

    Ray's costumes were usually spot on. Judging by paintings of the time, this type of wide trousers were indeed common in North India.

    Re the criticism, I think it also had to do with the novel to film transfer - the usual debate!!! Frances Pritchett had an interesting comparison on this. Anu

    1. Thanks Anu--I cringe reading my film reviews, but I'm glad you liked this one. I love the screencap you chose to use in your Tumblr post--the lovers caught and Farooq's shirt just becoming undone. xD May Farooq RIP.


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