The Chess Players 1977

Mir Roshan Ali playing chess with Mirza Sajjad Ali

Yesterday I went to a book-fair and got myself two new books. One is Jungle book (Mogali) fame Rudyard Kipling’s famous novel about Irish orphan roaming in India titled Kim and another is a collection of short stories by famous Hindi write Munshi Premchand titled The Chess players and other short stories.

This second book by Premchand is of my particular interest  as  a famous movie The Chess Players or Shatranj Ke Khilari (Hindi: शतरंज के खिलाड़ी) was made in the year 1977 by Oscar winning Indian director Satyajit Ray that was based on this short story.

“To not have seen the films of (Satyajit) Ray is to have lived in the world without ever having seen the moon and the sun”

- Akira Kurasawa

Chess-playersMovie begins with a conversation about Wajid Ali Shah, King of Awadh, between General James Outram played by Richard Attenborough and a young Captain Weston of British East India Company played by Tom Alter.

This initial dialogue between these two employees of Company Sarkar is in English language apart from that most of the dialogues in the movie are in Hindustani, a mixture of Hindi and Urdu, quiet popular at that time.

Satyajit Ray successfully depicts condition of Awadh state and its capital city Lucknow during Wajid Ali Shah’s rule just before sepoy mutiny and India’s first independence struggle. The Nawab of Awadh is portrayed as a very sensitive but sympathetic figure who is an artist and poet and spends much of his time with his muttha-wives in his harem.

Politics is not discussed in much detail by Premchand considering short nature of the story but Ray had a full feature film of two hours to experiment with and he elaborated political discussions a lot more in the movie.

He also tried to convey the message that the detachment and poor political will of India’s ruling classes allowed British East India Company with few officials and a small army  to take over the kingdom of Awadh without any opposition.

General James Outram meeting Nawab Wajid Ali Shah

General James Outram meeting Nawab Wajid Ali Shah

Fearing blood shedding of his people in a hopelessly unequal battle, the king opts to hand over the kingdom to the British with out a fight, singing to himself a Thumari that he has composed -

जब छोड़ चले लखनऊ नगरी
कहो हाल आदम पर क्या गुज़री

(Roughly translated: As we leave our beloved city of Lucknow, see what (pain) we have to go through…)

On Ray’s official website there is a page devoted to Shatranj ke Khilari with summary and comments with cast and credits listed.

Apart from this political drama a more personal and humorous tale of the chess battles between our heroes, two rich noblemen of the Kingdom of Oudh, unfolds parallely.

Both of them, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, are noblemen from city of Awadh and are protected by the royalty. Being rich they don’t have to work for their livelihood and they pass their entire days and months playing chess.

Mir Roshan Ali playing chess with Mirza Sajjad Ali

Mir Roshan Ali playing chess late into evenings with Mirza Sajjad Ali

It is real fun to watch them fighting over a move like small children do. Their wives, servants and even neighbours are all tired of their obsession for chess. Sometimes they skip their lunch and play chess later into the evenings.

Tired of his obsession for the game when Mirza Sajjid Ali’s Begum (wife) hides the chess board both our heroes are very irritated and left his house to buy a new set but soon realized that it is Sunday or something and they can’t buy new one on the same day.

Begum Khurshid -  Mirza Sajjad Ali's wife

Begum Khurshid – Mirza Sajjad Ali’s wife

They suddenly reminded of Vakil Saheb (lawyer) in the neighbourhood who displays a chess set in his living room. Both decides to borrow it for a day until they buy new one on the next day but finds Vakil Saheb on his death-bed at his house and was attended by his son.

Now they are in dilemma as how to ask for a chess-board as Vakil Saheb is on death bed but they pretend as if they are there to ask his whereabouts. But they can’t resist their temptation looking at the board in Vakil Saheb’s living room and starts playing when attendant left them to their own.

Whole movie is littered with such funny incidents and dialogues between The Chess Players Mir and Mirza of Lucknow. They always fight over touch-move and other rules and irregularities – cheating attempts of other.

A typical conversation:

Mir (about to lose a pawn on next move): “When did I make a move?”

Mirza: “You already have made your move so put that pawn in the chequer”

Mir: “Why should I put my pawn in that chequer? It is still in my hand. I have not put it on the board yet.”

Mirza: “Will there be no move if you keep it in your hand till Judgement Day? You are losing a pawn so you are trying to cheat…”

Mir: “You are a cheater, win and lose are all luck! Nobody ever won by cheating”

Mirza: “So accept it, you have lost the game?”

Mir: “How I lost the game? I haven’t.”

Mirza: “Then put your pawn in that chequer”

Mir: “I won’t do that..”

Mirza: “Why not? You have to”

Beautiful Red and White Chess Pieces as shown in the movie.

Beautiful Red and White Chess Pieces as shown in the movie.

The difference between Indian chess, played during this era in India, and current western format is also noticed by the director on few instances. Firstly when a government official ‘Munimji’ comes to meet Mir and Mirza to discuss about the affairs of state and Company’s intention to take over Awadh.

As Mir and Mirza were used to Indian format of the game, ‘Munimji’ says that he has played the English format, played by the British officials, as well and describes the difference of rules between them.

When Mirza Sajjid Ali asks, unlike in Indian  chess, why pawn has to move 2 squares in the opening, ‘Munimji’ replies that it is because ‘Goora’#1  finds Indian version of the game lazy, so they want to bring speed to it.

On this Mirza jokingly remarks that first they brought Railways to India and now they want to bring speed to our lazy game also.

Another comparison between the Indian Chess and Western Chess is in the last dialogue of the movie uttered by Mirza Sajjid Ali: वजीर साब आप हट जाइये, मल्लिका विक्टोरिया तशरीफ़ ला रही है। (Roughly translated:  Get aside Minister(Vazir), Queen Victoria is coming.)

Last scene of the movie marks the beginning of the British rule in India as conveyed in the dialogue above but there is also a more subtle and hidden meaning in it. And meaning is more related to the game of chess. It is about transformation of the game from ‘Indian’ to ‘Western’ version via travelling through Arabia.

In Europe the less powerful piece of the Indian Chess “Vazir” or “Prime Minister” was  transformed to the more agile and cunning “Queen” who ruled over the board. I have heard from the grapevine that this rule was introduced by the Queen of Spain in 13th or 14th century, can’t be sure of that.

And as Mirza said this European Queen is coming back to India and Indian Vazir has to make way for her, as it is the future of the game (and India) now.

My close observation also revealed that there is another hidden symbolism in the last scene that most of the non-chess players and most of the chess players could easily miss. Mirza Sajjid Ali, played by legendary actor Sanjeev Kumar,  just before uttering the last dialogue, “Get aside Prime Minister, make way for Queen Victoria”, changes the position of his King and Queen or Minister on the chess-board.

Unlike the modern ‘Western Chess’ in the Indian version of the game King faced the Queen of the opponent and vice-versa. So this last scene also symbolizes that change in very subtle manner when Mirza changes the position of King and newly found ‘Queen’ instead of a ‘Vazir’.

Mir and Mirza playing chess at a deserted mosque outside Lucknow

Mir and Mirza playing chess at a deserted mosque outside Lucknow

I still remember few old Muslim men playing this version of the game, where king’s don’t face each other, in the streets of Ahmedabad when I was a little child.  In the street fights now, western version of the game is used in this part of the world also.

While most of the Satyajit Ray’s work is bit ‘dark’ in nature but ironically this one isn’t, even considering it is based on a short story that is with a typical ‘dark’ ending by Munshi Premchand.

“In their concentration on the game, they could have put to shame any meditating ‘yogi’.”

- Munshi Premchand

Unlike the movie, when in the ending both our heroes decide to play a Jhut-Phut Baazi or the more faster ‘Western Chess’, at the end of the Munshi Premchand’s story they both die at the end  fighting over their game of chess.

Munshi Premchand concludes the story when both Mir and Mirza die at a deserted mosque after wounding each other with their daggers:

It turned dark. The chess-board was laid as it is and it appeared as if the kings of chess were crying on the death of their two valiant soldiers.#2

Movie is less dark and more funny and is recommended if you really love both chess and classical movies. Movie is very entertaining for non-chess players with slight sense of humour. For non Hindi/Urdu speaking world subtitles are available over the internet.

Ray made most of his movies in Bengali but made two of them in Hindi, Shatranj Ke Khilari is one of them. With budget of 2 million rupees this probably was his costliest movie at that time. Amitabh Bachchan narrates story very well in his deep baritone voice.


#1 Literally means ‘White skinned’ and British in this case, collectively any European in India during this ear. In modern time post independent India they are loosely referred as ‘Firang’ derived from Hindi pronunciation of ‘the French’.

#2 Small dialogue excerpts from book “The Chess Players and Other Short Stories” (ISBN: 81-89297-93-7) to support critical commentary, published first edition in 2013 by Vijay Goel Hindi-English publisher, Delhi, India.

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