Saturday, January 9, 2010
Shatranj ke Khilari: Chess Players
The only movies I can remember which made me laugh more than this one-actually laugh, not smile or snigger-are Chaplin's Circus and Duck Soup. Of course this is far more refined and a different blend of tea.
This is Lukhnow, 1856, a year before the anti-colonial uprising. Kite strings entwine in the sky , cocks fight to the death, rams exchange head blows, the crowds yell and scream . Lukhnow, the city of nawabs, Shiraz-e-Hind, the Constantinople of the East, birth place of Naushad and Begum Akhtar. City of Kathak and Thumri. Pulao, biryani, kababs--"the garden, granary and the queen of provinces". This is a film as much about a city that was as about what happens.
The province of Avadh ( Oudh in anglese ) in which the city lies, was at the time being "ruled"-the British sword is sheathed but ever ready-by Nawab Wajid Ali Khan. This is Amjad Ali Khan's finest performance. Is this really Gabbar, the death spewing snake of Sholay, whose dialogues are now proverbs? In the hands of Ray, Amjad's clay is transformed into the effete, dance loving, poetry composing, bemused Wajid Ali Shah, born to be a puppet-king, if king at all. He maintains a harem of 400 concubines, loves kite flying, dresses up as a Hindu god and dances with the girls in raas-leela, has many "muta" ( Persian for pleasure ) wives for three or thirty days, says his prayers five times a day, won't touch a drop of wine, and is the patron-founder of the lauded Lukhnow school of kathak ( a classical Indian dance ), of which we are treated to an exquisite performance in the course of the film. The Nawab's eyes moisten and a lump forms in his throat as he sees the dance.
Mirza Sajjad Ali ( Sanjeev Kumar ) and Mir Roshan Ali ( Sayeed Jaffrey ), two hereditary landlords, living off taxation, passing their lives in blissful idleness, chewing pan and smoking their hookahs--quite in love with life and themselves, flitting from diversion to diversion--have currently made chess the centre of their lives, and, as chilum follows chilum, the comrades straddle the board from morn to eve--obsessive like the internet, maybe--much to the discomfiture of at least one of their wives. Mirza's shrewd and lovely wife, inimitably portrayed by Shabana--Shabana smoking a hookah!She brings range and perfection of nuance to any role--she has the ability to lose herself in a role, yet retaining perfect control. Farida Jalal, as the second wife, is cuckolding Mir Sahib, who is far too stupid and trusting or unwilling or uninterested to know what is going on right under his nose. The Mirza's uncontrollable fit of laughter, as he rolls up in spasm after spasm after spasm, amazed at his friend's naivete is an absolutely incredible feat of acting, never seen in the annals of cinema. Frustrated at being neglected on account of the game, she contrives to hide the chess pieces. After hilariously desperate endeavours to find another set, even taking them to the house of a dying attorney, who exhales his last even as the chess-pals fiddle with a chess board with pieces which decorates a side-table in the drawing room, they finally settle on continuing their game using vegetables--tomatoes and onions as chess men. Outwitted, Shabana angrily hurls the pieces at the friends. They decide to shift the game to the Mir's place, where we are treated to another comic interlude of cuckoldry.
Meanwhile, the bigger game is in progress. Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general in Calcutta, sends General Outram (Attenborough, another delectable performance ) to Luckhnow ( six hundred miles in six days, with thirty changes of horse ), with clear orders to take over the administration of the province. Veena as the Queen Mother, Victor Banerjee as the Prime Minister, Tom Alter as the urdu speaking aide de camp Captain Weston, all give indelibly memorable performances. Veena particularly, as the betrayed and wounded mother of Wajid Ali, is marvellous in her defiant yet fore-doomed cry for justice, to Queen Victoria and to heaven. The peaks in this film are too many to single out, The film is a himalayan achievement in the annals of Indian cinema, deserving more accolades than it has received.
Finally the chess friends retreat to a hovel in the countryside to pursue their game in peace. They quarrel over the game, and, already in bad humour because of mosquitos and lack of a light for his smoke, he taunts his companion about the doings of his unfaithful wife, the talk of the town. Angered Mir Sahib fires his pistol.
As the gun explodes, we are treated to a panoramic sight of a rag-tag British force---cavalry, infantry, bullock carts, elephants, camels, muskets---on their way to take over Lukhnow. Deadly enough, come to think of it.
This gunshot reminds me of the plop of the stolen necklace in Pather Panchali as it sinks into the algaed water. It is an inspired moment and marks the conclusion of one era and the start of another.
"How can we, who couldn't manage our wives, face the British ?", philosophically rues Mir Roshan Ali. They continue their game, waiting for the cover of darkness to sneak home.
The film is less about politics and history than about the confrontation of civilizations. Ray, with his oriental heart and western intellect, is well qualified to tackle this theme. It bears repetition that not one but each of the seven leading actors have given performances of amazing fluidity and power. Certainly no one who understands Hindi or Urdu should die without seeing this movie twice.
Review: Vincent Cranby
Wiki on the film