The Chess Players Review

Satyajit Ray is another of those directors, like perhaps Mikio Naruse, whose work is sadly under-represented on DVD and who is as a consequence frequently underrated when it comes to consideration of the world’s greatest film directors. Anyone who knows anything about world cinema however will be aware of the Apu Trilogy of films - Pather Panchali, Aparijito and The World Of Apu (fortunately and essentially already available on DVD from Artificial Eye), and will be aware of the remarkable insight with which Satyajit Ray depicts the situation of the people of India, as well as his touching representation of humanitarian values and a masterful ability to relate them to a film audience. Those values are readily apparent even in untypical films like Abhijan and in Satyajit Ray’s only non-Bengali film, The Chess Players, where even working in Urdu, a language unfamiliar to him, he still manages to touch on essential human characteristics, draw out exceptional dramatic performances, and relate a fascinating historical story with remarkable ability.

The Chess Players is set in India back in 1856 and depicts the story of one of India’s most unusual monarchs, King Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) of the kingdom of Oudh. While the other provinces of India have all come under British rule, Oudh is privileged with an ancient treaty that allows the king to remain in power. Part of the reason for such a situation is that the citizens of Oudh are well looked after and have no complaints against the ruling authorities, but mainly because the British know they can count on the king’s fabulous wealth to finance their campaigns and wars elsewhere in India. Nevertheless, senior political figures are dissatisfied with the situation, believing that the province needs a firmer hand to rule it than the current monarch. General Outram (Richard Attenborough) of the East India Company is particularly outraged at the kind of regal activities enjoyed by the king that no British monarch would indulge in - composing poems and songs, dancing on the stage, and particularly his devout religious observance which seems at odds with his harem of 400 concubines and 29 “temporary” wives. He sees this as a weakness that can be exploited to oust the king from power, but to do so without destabilising the region and starting off a war is a complicated affair that requires the skill of an expert chess player.

Another strand of the film is given over to the exploits of two noblemen in Lucknow, the capital of Oudh, Mr Meer (Saeed Jaffrey) and Mr Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar), landed gentry who have such a passion for chess that they are oblivious to anything else going on around them and are consequently inattentive to their wives. The parallel is obvious – that the nobles of the province have grown lazy with their privileged life-styles and are consequently unable to react to real-life events. Playing chess, the game of kings, they believe they are clever and know all the tricks of the game, but the British version of chess is played by a different set of rules.

With the ultimate result of the game being the taking of the King (Wajid) by the Queen (Victoria), it would appear that Satyajit Ray is also playing a little game of his own to tease and entrance the viewer, but the use of the chess game is more than a clever conceit, adding structure, balance and masterfully drawing out underlying characteristics and motivations. The two separate threads of the story are perfectly balanced in terms of humour and drama, the director’s lightness of touch ensuring that both are complementary, the one lending the other additional weight, meaning and lightness of touch. It also allows for some marvellous scenes and performances, each of them – Attenborough, the King, the chess players, right down to the supporting roles – fully characterised and superbly acted. It all fits together perfectly and seemingly effortlessly, which is always the sign of a master of the cinema.

And again, those essential characteristics that are typical of Satyajit Ray can be found in the film. In terms of understanding and representing the plight of Indian people on the screen from their own viewpoint, The Chess Players is in complete contrast to that more commonly seen in the films of Merchant-Ivory, in particular (such as Shakespeare Wallah) with regards to the loss of culture and tradition, represented by the king in his cultural pursuits and in one marvellous dance sequence in the film. On a humanitarian level, Ray is similarly on another level altogether, showing fully rounded characters with their differing and contrasting motivations and the inevitable consequence – both humorous and serious – of what happens when those personal interests conflict.

The Chess Players is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

The video presentation, presumably in the original 1.33:1, looks reasonably good, certainly presenting a colourful image. The contrast however is perhaps a bit strong, blacks are consequently rather flat and the picture can look somewhat murky in interior shots. While the colours themselves are strong, the colour timing seems slightly off, though this is only really noticeable in skin-tones. Reds in particular are quite vivid and tend to bleed hazily outside their boundaries (see some of the screenshots provided). Nonetheless, the image is reasonably sharp and clear and shows remarkable detail, particularly in the textures and patterns of clothing. There are few marks on the print, though one or two minor jumps of a frame or so. Overall though, the image and the transfer serve the film well.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is mostly clear and audible, but is not particularly strong. A certain amount of background hiss is audible in the background and there is a little bit of sibilance in voices.

English subtitles are provided and are optional. They are however only partial, translating the Urdu sections, but providing no hard of hearing option for the sections spoken in English.

Unexpectedly, Artificial Eye have gone to the trouble of conducting some new interviews for the extra features. A long Interview with Sir Richard Attenborough (43:37) in conversation with Ray biographer Andrew Robinson isn’t particularly revealing, Attenborough only having sketchy memories of the making of the film thirty years ago, but he professes great admiration for Satyajit Ray, talks about how he became involved in the film and tells a few anecdotes around its making. There are similar difficulties in the Interview with Saeed Jaffrey (17:43), Robinson struggling to draw out more information about the director’s personality and working methods, but only getting more background about how Jaffrey became involved in the film and some more on-set anecdotes. Satyajit Ray Production Sketches contains 10 drawings, sketches and storyboards that the director made for the film. There are Biographies for Satyajit Ray, Richard Attenborough, Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar.

Apart from the important Apu Trilogy, most of Satyajit Ray’s films are unavailable on DVD. On the strength of the lesser-known and perhaps less typical releases of Abhijan from Masters of Cinema and now The Chess Players from Artificial Eye it seems like one of the greatest film directors in the world has been very much under-represented. Hopefully this omission will be remedied in the near future and Ray can be re-evaluated as an important and still relevant director who has much to say about people and about how we live. The Chess Players represents some of the director’s finest characteristics in this regard and is quite well presented on this new UK DVD edition.

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