When I first discovered the films of Satyajit Ray, I was a boy in Calcutta and he was in the middle of shooting The Chess Players. Ray, of course, was a veritable god in Calcutta and the papers were full of reports about the progress of the film, his most expensive until then and his first in a language other than Bengali. When Richard Attenborough arrived to do his scenes, the excitement heightened further - a real live British actor coming to work in a sweltering, primitive Calcutta studio! Just before the film was released, there were reports that Bollywood distributors had conspired to keep it out of theatres in north India (the interview with Saeed Jaffrey on this disc tries to probe the issue). Nobody, of course, could keep it out of Ray's own city and we were absolutely captivated by our hero's magnificent new creation. The sets, the costumes, the music, the acting all drew the highest praise locally, although Marxists and Marxoids inevitably grumbled about Ray's "wimpy" portrayal of imperialism.
Nationally and internationally, the film has had a rougher ride - there is little consensus on its position in Ray's corpus and many critics (Derek Malcolm, Stanley Kauffmann) have considered it to be a minor work. I think The Chess Players, in many ways, is one of Ray's finest films, but I can also see why it doesn't sweep people off their feet. The structure of the film is itself challenging - the two strands of the story are never brought together very clearly and Ray leaves the viewer to grasp the parallels between the two chess players playing their interminable game and General Outram taking over the province of Awadh from its legitimate ruler Wajid Ali Shah. Documentary-style commentaries (voiced by the Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan) and animation are used to establish the historical background. Although the pace of the film is measured, there is little of the patient observation of character and nuance for which Ray's early films are renowned. Most challengingly perhaps, the imperialist is not portrayed as an amoral aggressor and the indigenous ruler is presented as imaginative but incompetent. The two chess players represent an uninvolved aristocracy, and only a peasant boy, toward the end of the film, shows any spark of patriotism. The last shot - with an outstanding soundtrack few critics have paid any attention to - shows the chess players beginning to play in the faster, British style. The aristocracy, in other words, adapts to colonial rule in order to continue their privileged lives. When viewed attentively, The Chess Players makes a major statement on colonialism and the conditions making it possible but its message is unlikely to be palatable to conventional nationalists or neo-colonial apologists. It also has some superb acting, captivating music, brilliant historical reconstructions and a mesmerizing sequence of Kathak dance. It is not Jalsaghar [The Music Room] in colour - but then, it wasn't meant to be.
This DVD is an excellent production - the print is good, the subtitles legible, and above all, it is the only DVD of a Ray film that has real extras. There are interviews with Richard Attenborough and Saeed Jaffrey, both conducted by Ray's biographer Andrew Robinson. One wishes the actors remembered more about the making of the film - has either of them ever had meatier roles or a greater director? - but the interviews are good to have nonetheless.
So, here is a major Ray film on an excellent DVD at a reasonable price - buy it and enjoy! And hope that Artificial Eye brings out more Ray discs soon...