PAGE 08: Picking Up the Pieces

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By Dr. Luis Dias

In this birth centenary year of Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), five films from his formidable oeuvre are being screened at the 51st IFFI. Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players, 1977) is one among them.

Set in 1856, on the eve of what the British call the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, and we call India’s first Uprising or War for Independence, the chessboard becomes a metaphor for the ruthless scheming of the British East India Company (EIC), essentially a British joint-stock corporate company in its relentless, remorseless expansionism, toppling rajas, nawabs, and other potentates like pawns and capturing vast swathes of the Indian subcontinent in its insatiable hunger for ever more profit and power. 

In 1856, the EIC annexed the state of Awadh under the Doctrine of Lapse, according to which any Indian princely state under its suzerainty could have its princely status abolished (and therefore, be annexed into British India) if the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir”.

Based on a short story by Dhanpat Rai Srivastava (better known by his nom de plume Munshi Premchand, 1880-1936), Ray makes an emphatic point that the detachment of India’s ruling classes assisted a small number of British officials and soldiers to take over Awadh without opposition.

Contemporary Indian chronicles have called this turbulent period “the Anarchy”, which is the title of British author William Dalrymple’s account of those times, a “timely and cautionary tale of the rise of the East India Company and one of the most supreme acts of corporate violence in world history.” It might seem like a dusty historical flashback today, but corporate violence and greed are even more rapacious today than ever before, using rulers of nations as expendable chess pieces in a lethal game of manipulation and check-mating. This is why Shatranj ke Khiladi is such a powerful parable of our times. The EIC may be consigned to the dust-heap of history, but multi-national corporations are their contemporary equivalent, even more power-hungry and with a far wider reach.  

But as Dalrymple reminds us both in ‘The Anarchy’ and interviews about it, such overweening power would not have been possible without local collusion. As he told Reader’s Digest (RD) last year: “The EIC while being extractive and plundering, was also collaborative. From the very beginning, it was in business with Indian businessmen; it almost never operated on its own. It gained an enormous amount from its business with Indian partners.”

The EIC, the first truly global joint-stock corporation, set the mold for the corporate hostile takeover, and all the ills that come with unregulated expansionism, the phenomenon of having to be bailed out when markets crash and corporate companies become in effect “too big to fail.”  

Dalrymple added in the RD interview: “We need to learn about the need to regulate these companies. Just as we need laws to control human beings, we need to develop laws and regulations that can control national corporations that span different jurisdictions and different tax regimes. Because at the moment, they find it very easy to wriggle out by playing one state and one tax regime against another, like the EIC did.”

I’ve watched ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’ several times over the years, and never tire of it. Having chess at the centre of the narrative is particularly appealing to me because of my fascination with the game from my childhood, ever since my father taught me to play it, using the exquisitely carved wooden pieces, a family heirloom. That hereditary obsession has been transmitted to our son, who now derives much pleasure in trouncing me.

Chess has been on my mind a lot during this lockdown. Apart from playing my son, I re-read Stefan Zweig’s novella The Royal Game, and I’ve just finished watching the absorbing Netflix mini-series The Queen’s Gambit (2020) a coming-of-age period drama based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 eponymous novel, which I’m going through right now and relishing every page.

For those new to Shatranj ke Khiladi, Ray’s first Hindi feature film, it is a cinematic masterpiece. With Amitabh Bachchan’s riveting narrative voice, it has a stellar cast, including Amjad Khan as the feckless Nawab Wajid Ali Shah; Sanjeev Kumar as his shatranj (the ancient form of chess) partner Mirza Sajjad Ai; Shabana Azmi (Khurshid, Mirza’s wife); Leela Mishra  (Hirya, Khurshid’s maid); Saeed Jaffrey (Mir Roshan Ali); Farida Jalal (Nafisa, Mir’s wife); Richard Attenborough (General James Outram); Tom Alter (Captain Weston, Outram’s aide de camp); Victor Banerjee (Prime Minister Madar-ud-Daula); and  David Abraham (Munshi Nandlal), among others. 

I’ve written about Ray’s musical genius in the second issue of this edition of ‘The Peacock.’ In Shatranj ke Khiladi, Ray exploits the historical period drama setting to step aside from his often minimalistic scoring for his films to give full rein to a much more lush orchestral texture when appropriate.

This is Ray at the height of his cinematic grandmaster brilliance. 

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