“Not Rome, not Athens, not Constantinople, not any city I have ever seen appears to me so striking and beautiful as [Lucknow],” wrote Sir William Howard Russell, a reporter with The Times, when he was sent to the north Indian city around 1858.
During its apogee, the capital for the Nawabs of Oudh (or Awadh) was the site of the last great manifestation of Indo-Islamic genius. It was “indisputably the largest, most prosperous and most civilised pre-colonial city in India,” according to historian William Dalrymple in The Age of Kali: Indian Travels & Encounters.
Unfortunately, the heydays—as they are wont to—didn’t last long. The East India Company desperately wanted to annex Lucknow, along with the surrounding Awadhi territories, and managed to do so in 1856. This led to the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, which ended tragically for the Indians and further sealed the city’s demise.
Today, Lucknow has cemented its place in history as the one place that could offer shelter to Mir, arguably the greatest Urdu poet ever, during the last few years of his life, but also suffer a railway track built over his grave.
It is the sadness of this decay that Munshi Premchand, one of the most celebrated writers to emerge from the Indian subcontinent, took aim at in his short story, also titled Shatranj Ke Khilari. In it, two aristocrats—Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali—live in the erstwhile kingdom of Awadh. They are stubbornly negligent towards their duties, instead spending their waking hours playing chess and smoking hookah. They ignore their wives and hide from reality, refusing to stop their game even as the British capture the kingdom’s ruler.
Chess Players is a surreal work of satire. Premchand obviously holds the ruling class’s self-centered way of life responsible for the kingdom’s “bloodless” collapse. He doesn’t sketch either protagonist fully; the merely functional details allow readers to insert all members of the gentry in the shoes of Mirza and Mir, and consequently spare no one from blame. It’s also apparent he regards the game of chess as only one of the numerous sins the nobles committed. He’s criticizing the life of pleasure all the elites in Lucknow pursued, at the expense of noticing the ruin their city was headed for.
The constant critique is aided by the harsh prose in the story’s Hindi version. Premchand refrains from any romanticization in his depictions; he is interested not in portraying Awadh’s excesses but in condemning them. The story’s iconic opening paragraph proves it beyond doubt:
“Lucknow was absorbed in enjoyment. Great and small, rich and poor, all were absorbed in enjoyment. If one person arranged music and dance performances, then the next took pleasure only in the intoxication of opium. In every department of life, enjoyment and merry-making prevailed. In government, in literature, in social conditions, in arts and crafts, in industry, in cuisine, everywhere enjoyment was becoming pervasive. […] No one knew what was happening in the world. […] From king to pauper, all were drunk with this same mood.”*
Ray was apparently attracted to this particular Premchand story (the author wrote around 250 of them) because of the parallels between the game of chess played by the protagonists and the crafty moves made by the British simultaneously. That would explain his approach to the adaptation, which was his first non-Bengali effort.
Ray’s film focuses not only on the two opium- and chess-crazed landowners but also on the ruler, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, and the British Resident of Lucknow, General James Outram. The General’s character is portrayed with the appropriate haughtiness by Richard Attenborough, who passed away this past August. This was the English thespian’s first and only appearance in an Indian film, ensuring Ray wasn’t the only breaking barriers.
The Nawab is portrayed as a patron of the arts. He is a poet, songwriter and dancer, but more importantly he is a self-absorbed daydreamer. Perhaps he realizes that he has no real power anyway, but the turbulence that this provokes in him is restricted to emotions. Even in the face of the gravest danger, he doesn’t act at all.
On the other hand, Outram realizes that what he’s doing is unjust. The Kingdom of Awadh has a treaty of friendship with the British, but Outram must take it over anyway. He does so grudgingly. Ironically, the one person in the story who has the power to act is unwilling to do so and the one who winds up doing anything is only following orders.
The real conflict in Chess Players emerges between these two men, which is just as well because the subplot involving the chess players is rather weak. Ray seems to have misunderstood the fundamental structure of Premchand’s story. It’s vital for the satire to retain its potency that the two characters remain ciphers; their quixotic fascination with “chess” is digestible only if they’re treated as larger-than-life enigmas throughout.
However, in his efforts to stretch the short story to a feature-length screenplay, Ray expands these characters, turns them into fully fleshed out individuals…while literally following their slavish dedication to chess. The result not only fails to be fully believable even in the universe of the film; it ends up feeling rather comical.
Chess Players also aims for comedy in several other places, with unwholesome consequences. In one sequence, Mir and Mirza visit a mutual friend, hoping to borrow his chess pieces. Their addiction for the game reaches such heights they cannot stop themselves from playing while sitting in the waiting room. The entire scene comes across as misplaced slapstick, an Awadhi Laurel and Hardy sketch with some lustful undercurrents to boot.
The homoeroticism is also evident in another scene where Mirza’s wife attempts to seduce him in the bedroom, even straddling him at one point, but the man can’t satisfy her because of erectile dysfunction. He tells her that he can’t concentrate with Mir sitting in the other room and the game unfinished. He promises her he’ll “prove” how much he loves her the next day.
Given how intensely dependent both males are on each other, how they must avoid their marital partners, how much time they end up in spending in close quarters, a homoerotic dimension is perhaps an organic extension of their relationship, but it’s jarring nevertheless.
Ray cared a lot about this project, which may have had something to do with the situation in India at the time. The country was just coming off its darkest period since independence. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared “the Emergency” from 1975 to 1977, during which she suppressed several constitutional rights of the public in order to ensure her political survival. The initial non-involvement and later complicity of some groups had assisted the promulgation of this terrible suppression, and it is not unthinkable that Ray found solace in the parallels of this story from five decades earlier.
The lengths he went to during his research are awe-inspiring. In one scene where the Nawab is watching a dance performance, he’s stroking a cat. The look of the cat was taken from a drawing by an artist in the Nawab’s court. Ray read up extensively on the ruler, and thought of him not as an effete or effeminate character but as a complex and contradictory person. In an essay in The Illustrated Weekly of India, he claimed his portrayal was based on the best historical evidence.
Even at its most unsatisfying, The Chess Players is an engaging and stimulating piece of work. The climax, where Ray substantially differs from the source material’s elegiac denouement, is downbeat and bleak in its own way. He’s undeniably trying something out with full sincerity.
Unfortunately, sometimes, Premchand’s words get lost in translation.