Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) (1977) 




Director:      Satyajit Ray.

Starring:     Sanjeev Kumar (Mirza Sajjad Ali ),  Saeed Jaffrey (Mir Roshan Ali),  Shabana Azmi (Khurshid, Mirza's wife),  Farida Jalal (Nafisa, Mir's wife),  Amjad Khan (Wajid Ali Shah ),  David Abraham (Munshi),  Richard Attenbrough (General James Outram),     Victor Banerjee (Prime Minister),  Farooq Shaikh (Aqueel ),  Tom Alter (Capt. Weston, Outram's aide de camp),  Leela Mishra (Hirya, Khurshid's maid),  Samarth Narain (Kallu),  Bhudo Advani (Abbajani),  Amitabh Bachchan (narrator).

a classic in which the British seize the Indian kingdom of Oudh, one of the last independent kingdoms of India


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

Mr. Mir and Mr. Mirza loves to play chess.  Chess is a bit like a battlefield, but the two men only play at warfare.  They are landed gentry and don't have to work.  They are noblemen of the capital of Oudh: Lucknow.  After the passing of the great Moghuls in Delhi, Lucknow became India's bastion of Moslem culture.  There is a cruel side to the culture.  Cockfighting,  for instance.  King Wajid rules over Oudh.  One of his weaknesses is a fondness for dancing girls.  In 1851 he sent his crown to London to be displayed at the Great Exposition. 

The British Governor-General Lord Dalhousie thinks that Oudh is a cherry that will drop into their mouths one day.  And the Governor-General has eaten many cherries:  Punjab, Burma, Nagpur, Satara and Jhansi.  There is only one cherry left:  Oudh.  Oudh has had a friendship with the British for over half a century all the way back to the reign of Nawab Shuja.  He was defeated by the British, but they didn't dethrone him.  He received $5 million rupees in compensation.  But the Nawab paid for British military adventures in India.  Nawab Ghaziuddin was very generous and the British called him king.  He was the one who made the crown. 

The present king has 400 concubines and 29 "temporary" wives of periods of pleasure ranging from three days to three months to three years.  The British think he is a bad king (or that's their excuse) and will take over from Wajid. 

While Mir and Mirza play chess, they receive some bad news from their friend Nandlal.  The bad news is that the East India Company plans to take over from the King.  Nandlal says that he does not trust Lord Dalhousie.  The talk is that the British have reached Kanpur.  Lord Dalhousie is preparing an important dispatch.  It is taken by special couriers some 600 miles to Calcutta. It takes the horsemen seven days to reach their destination. 

Evening of January 31, 1856.  General Outram reads the dispatch. 

While Mir and Mirza play chess at Mirza's home, Mirza's wife tells a servant to tell Mirza to come and see her.  But Mirza keeps delaying because he is too much into the chess game.  The mistress of the house starts getting very impatient.  She tells the servant to go back and tell him to come immediately.  She says:  "That stupid game."  When Mirza does show up, she says that he does not care about her.  Even when he is home, they still do not see each other.  She thinks the two men are ridiculous.  She tells her husband that his friend's wife has been cheating on him and that he and his buddy are the only two who don't know it.  The wife tells Mirza that she will not let him go back to his chess game.  She starts to have sex with him, but he cannot perform.  He tells his wife that he is just thinking too much about the chess game.  (While Mirza was with his wife, Meer cheated by moving a piece on the chess board.)

The next morning General Outram meets with the Prime Minister of Oudh.  He explains that in 10 years the King has not improved the administration.  This has in turn causes problems among the people.  Therefore, there is no alternative for the British but to take over from the King.  He asks the Prime Minister if he has seen Colonel Sleeman's Report.  Yes, he has.

Someone stole Mirza's chess pieces.  He has his servants search all over for them.  Mir and Mirza decide to pay a visit to their lawyer who has a chess set.  When they arrive they learn from the son that his father is in bed unconscious.  The two fans start playing chess.  The servant removes the chess board from where they are sitting so he can place refreshments in front of them.  The two chess players simply stand up and move over to where the chess board sits.  The lawyer has regained consciousness.  Mir and Mirza start to go in to ask their lawyer if they can borrow his chess set, but the lawyer dies. 

On their way back home Mir and Mizra start betting on a fight between two rams.  When they get home they start playing chess using fruits, nuts and spices for chess pieces.  This upsets the wife very much.  So she retrieves the chess pieces and throws them onto her husband and his guest.  Mirza suggests that from now on they should play at Mir's house. 

King Wajid shouts at his staff.  He screams that they have deceived him.  Furthermore, they have lined their own pockets.  He says that Colonel Sleeman was right about them, but he didn't believe it.  Later the king starts talking about how he composed a song while a man's petition was being read.  He then changes the subject to the British company.  It already has half of his kingdom and now they want the other half.  He adds:  "My throne is not theirs for the asking.  If they want it, they will have to fight for it."

General Outram is concerned about the legality of what the British company is trying to do.  The King could make a valid argument that the older treaty is the legitimate one, not the new one.  The older treaty was abrogated by the Court of Directors, but the King was never told.  Now General Outram is going to have to do his damndest to get the king to sign the new treaty and to abdicate.  But the British taking of Oudh is an accomplished fact for all intents and purposes.  He wonders if there will be a peaceful takeover.  They will have to tell the Sepoys to fire on their brothers.  What will the King do?  He admits that he cannot figure the King out.  The King is the only one of his dynasty to fail to be treated by a British doctor.  There are now only five days to go and there is still no word from the King.  Tomorrow General Outram will speak to the Queen mother.  She might be able to give the King some good advice to be cautious. 

Mir and Mirza meet at Mir's place.  Mir tells one of his servants to tell his wife that there will be two for dinner.   Mir asks Mirza if he had made up with his wife.  No is the answer.  Mir then says he has no problems at his house.  Mirza raises an eyebrow, but says nothing about the man's wife. 

The wife's lover arrives.  He is actually her young nephew.  The wife is a bit worried, but the nephew assures her that if the two men are involved in a chess game, they will be too involved to notice what is going on in the house.  Mir hears a funny noise and goes to check it out.  He finds his nephew half-way under the bed.  He asks what is going on and the two guilty parties says that the army is after him and he is hiding from them.  The wife explains that they are rounding up people to fight.   Mir seems assured and adds that "You're perfectly safe here."  Mir returns to Mizra and says that there is nothing to worry about.  This strikes Mirza as funny and he starts laughing so hard that he can't stop. 

Mir and Mizra decide to walk to an old ruined mosque where they can play chess in peace.  They take two pistols with them just in case there is trouble. 

General Outram speaks to the Queen Mother.  She tells him that she would advise her son to take up arms against the British company.   General Outram advises that it would be most imprudent.  He encourages her to advise her son to sign the new treaty.  If she would do this, he would be very beholden to her.  The Queen Mother says that she is going to go to England and ask British Queen Victoria for help. 

The King is informed that the barons are just waiting for word from him to start raising an army of 100,000 men and 1,000 pieces of artillery to oppose the Company's forces.  The King tells a messenger to tell General Outram that he will receive him at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning.   There will be no resistance to the Company's troops. 

Mir and Mirza walk to the old mosque ruins.  They cannot, however, find any such ruins.  They ask a young boy from the area about the mosque.  There is one two miles from here.  Mir tells his friend that he is terribly sorry.  He had seen it as a child and just remembered its location wrongly.   The young boy offers them his home in Sitapur as a place to play chess.  All the people are gone, afraid of the oncoming Brits. 

General Outram arrives to see the King.  The King greets him.  They are here to negotiate a peaceful conclusion to a treaty.  He asks the King to please sign the treaty and formalize his abdication.  He will have three days for deliberation after which the Company will assume the duties of the administration.  The king takes his royal turban off and gives it to General Outram.  The General says that he has no use for the turban.  The King tells him that he cannot sign the treaty. 

Mizra tells Mir about his being cuckolded.   Mir picks up the pistol and points it at Mizra.  He says:  "I don't believe you."  He shoots, but it only grazes Mizra's left arm.  The boy arrives with the food and tells Mizra that "Our King has given up, sir."  There was no fighting and no bloodshed. 

February 5, 1856.  With Oudh in British hand, Lord Dalhousie will have eaten the last cherry. 

Mir tells Mizra that while the British take over their kingdom, we fight over petty things.  They make up.  They then agree to play a fast game.  Mizra picks up one of the chess pieces and says:  "Move over Minister, make way for Queen Victoria!"


An o.k. movie.  At times it dragged.  The interaction between the chess players was funny at times, but didn't really add that much to the story.  They obviously were not that much effected by the take over of their kingdom by the British East India Company.   They even agreed that they were fighting over petty things, while Rome burned.  It might have been better to explore more of the arrogance of the British that allowed them to let a business take over a vast country.  It sounds insane, but it's all too true.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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