The Chess Players (Shantranj Ke Khiladi) was a late career highlight for Indian director Satyajit Ray, but it brought a number of precedents to his extensive filmography. The lavish period drama, depicting how British forces took over the decadence-ridden state of Oudh in northern India, was Ray’s most expensive production. Scripted with Hindi and Urdu dialogue, it was his first feature film not in his native Bengali language. Most notable of all, the film assembles what may be the most distinguished cast of any Ray film. Many of the actors may not be instantly recognizable to Western audiences, but they are key entries to a “who’s who” among Indian film stars. Their sympathetic portrayals bring a much-needed humanism to Ray’s scathing satire of how societal indolence led to India’s downfall in the 19th century.
Sanjeev Kumar (Mirza Sajjad Ali) was one of India’s most beloved actors in the ‘70s and ‘80s. An actor of rare gravitas, he may be best known as the armless hero in Sholay, the top-grossing Bollywood film of all time. He won three Filmfare Awards (aka the Indian Oscars) for Best Actor, and was nominated for 11 others. Appearing in over 140 features, he was such a prolific actor that after his untimely death of a heart ailment at 47, he had ten features in the can still waiting to be released.
Saeed Jaffrey (Mir Roshan Ali) – An accomplished stage actor in India since the ‘50s (and one of the first Indians to perform Shakespeare in America), Jaffrey didn’t appear in an Indian film until The Chess Players– ironic since he had already made his name overseas in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King. He went on to become a fixture in ’80s British productions, appearing in Gandhi, A Passage to India, and My Beautiful Laundrette, which landed him a BAFTA nomination, the first by an Asian actor.
Shabana Azmi (Khurshid, Mirza’s wife) – Considered the “Meryl Streep of the Subcontinent,” Azmi is the undisputed queen of India’s art cinema, Winner of an unprecedented five Indian National Film Awards, she possesses a stunning combination of beauty and talent. She’s long been an outspoken activist on behalf of justice for social outcasts in India, particularly for victims of AIDS. In The Chess Players, she’s relegated to a thankless role as Kumar’s neglected wife, but in her scenes she conveys the haunting impression of a bright young life trapped in idle luxury.
Amjad Khan (Wajid Ali Shah) – Worked in over 130 films, but immortalized in the role of the villainous Gabbar Singh in Sholay. Next to that over-the-top incarnation of pure evil, his turn as the tragically effete King of Oudh makes for a startling juxtaposition. This happens to be the only performance in his career where he sings in his own voice, a memorable scene of the king’s poetic lament.
Richard Attenborough (General Outram) – Maybe best known as Dr. John Hammond in Jurassic Park, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg that is an astonishing career as actor, producer and director, spanning seven decades. His first acting role was as a sailor in David Lean and Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve, the first of many roles as military officers (i.e. Roger Bartlett in The Great Escape). The Chess Players is no exception, as he portrays the instigator of the British forces to usurp control of Oudh, and he plays the Colonialist villain to smarmy effect. His cinematic involvement with India would end here, however: he went on to produce and direct Gandhi, for which he won two Oscars.
Farida Jalal (Nafisa, Mir’s wife) – Appearing in over 130 features, Jalal has made virtually her entire career performing in supporting roles, initially as the “sister” or “wife,” and later as the “aunt” or “mother” to the main characters. Her efforts did not go unnoticed, as she won three Indian Filmfare awards for Best Supporting Actress, including one for her role in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, one of the top grossing Indian films of all time.
Tom Alter (Capt. Weston) – Known in India as “the blue-eyed Saheeb,” Alter was born in India of American missionaries, and has carved out a distinctive career playing British or American characters in Hindi films. In The Chess Players, he has a memorable scene reciting poetry in Urdu, and in doing so betrays his own sympathies for the local culture to a disapproving General Outram.
David Abraham (Munshi Nandlal) – Having appeared in over 120 films, David was an Indian Jew who generally played “friendly uncle” roles. In The Chess Players he introduces Mir and Mirza to British chess, while fretting over the British incursions on their homeland.
Victor Banerjee (Prime Minister Ali Naqi Khan) – Best known as the hapless Dr. Aziz Ahmed in David Lean’s A Passage to India, Banerjee made his film debut in The Chess Players. As in A Passage to India, Banerjee countenances the British colonials with soulful brown eyes and a look of perpetual bewilderment.
Amitabh Bachchan (Narrator) – Arguably India’s most beloved screen actor of all time, having starred in numerous blockbusters, including Sholay, and having won an unprecedented thirteen Filmfare Awards, including for “Superstar of the Millennium.” Satyajit Ray was no doubt eager to involve “The Big B” in The Chess Players, but found no suitable role for him except for his unmistakable baritone. Thus his opening narration, with a wry, detached delivery, sets the tone for the film.