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Kino on Video presents
The Chess Players (1977)

"If a king stops bothering about his realm, what is left for him to do?"
- Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: April 17, 2006

Stars: Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey, Shabana Azmi, Farida Jalal, Victor Banerjee, Amjad Kahn, Sir Richard Attenborough
Director: Satyajit Ray

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:55m:47s
Release Date: April 18, 2006
UPC: 738329040826
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B-DC D+

DVD Review

Satyajit Ray, one of the great Indian filmmakers, is known principally in the West for his Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and The World of Apu), though over a career spanning decades, he produced a handsome and extensive body of work, much of it little known outside of his native land. The appearance on DVD of The Chess Players, then, is very welcome—it's especially interesting as a period piece—but it brings with it more than its share of confusions and redundancies, unfortunately. Ray seems much more attuned to the personal than to the political, and the focus of this film is much more on public life than family life, alas, to its detriment.

The story is set in 1856, with the British Empire the defining fact of life in India. The presence of the British as an occupying army here, some hundred years or so before Indian independence, pervades all aspects of the story; the British don't even attempt to veil their racist contempt for the Indians, and the Indians are rightfully outraged at the continuing humiliations and abuses they are forced to suffer in the name of Her Majesty. The focus of the tale is squarely on Mir (Saeed Jeffrey) and Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar), whose newfound affection for playing chess has taken on an obsessive quality—all else is subservient to the game, be it matters of state, of finance, or of family. Chess wreaks havoc on Mir's marriage; his wife fakes headaches to get him away from the chessboard, but he'd rather get back to the game than spend any quality time alone in the dark with his neglected missus. (It's no surprise, then, when later on, the brides of the chess players are just as happy to see their spouses idle away in front of the game board—more time to entertain unencumbered, and there's some obvious sex farce stuff late in the picture. Ray, unfortunately, doesn't have the deftest touch when it comes to comedy.)

But in a number of respects the game is on the sideline, for the broader, more public story has to do with the efforts of General Outram, the British commanding officer in the region, to get the local king to bend to his will. The king is a poet, a man with literally hundreds of wives and mistresses—it's hard to know if Outram wants to take him down because of the king's power and aesthetic ability and virility, or if his animus comes from thinking him less than a serious man of state. Whatever the case, Outram has the force of empire behind him, and much unpleasantness ensues. (Outram is played by Richard Attenborough; it's particularly interesting to watch this and imagine the wheels turning in the actor's mind, for only five years later would he direct Gandhi.)

There are all sorts of interesting notions at play in this film—the king's emphasis on poetry makes him seem almost a Richard II figure, for instance, ready to let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings. And much of the film, of course, is about the unbridgeable rift between English and Indian cultures, about moving inexorably toward the inevitable split—the British allege misrule simply as a way to bulldoze the locals, many of whom are satisfied to fiddle while Rome burns, or at least to play chess while the British are coming. But Ray seems to lean far too heavily on the chess metaphors—for East versus West, for man versus woman, for Machiavellian politics of all sorts—and there simply isn't the richness to this that it needs. Also, the movie never quite makes the sale about the transporting fascinations of the game—why they are so transfixed, why Mir and Mirza are content to let everything else in their worlds crumble so they can sneak in one more game, is a secret known to the two of them alone. That's how you'll end up feeling about this film overall, as well; a strong smart effort, but one that keeps its audience on the outside looking in.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This is a sorry transfer of shoddy source material, with many scratches, some missing frames, a jumpiness to the framing, and colors that have been bled out badly.

Image Transfer Grade: D


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Urdu and Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Lots of the dialogue is muffled; then again, with the exception of the Attenborough scenes, the film is in Urdu, so unless you're a native speaker, you'll probably be reading along with the subtitles anyway.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Production Notes
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. original British poster art
Extras Review: Other than some original poster art and a selected Ray filmography, the only extra are some brief production notes, discussing various cuts of the film; apparently two longer versions played at festivals before the theatrical release of the version seen here. It seems like a missed opportunity—someone took the time to look into all this, suggesting that more information on the film might be reasonably accessible, but if so, you won't find anything else here.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

Satyajit Ray's film is thoughtful but frequently intellectually muddled or overly simplistic. It's good to see another of the director's films on DVD, but Kino has done him no favors with the poor technical quality of this disc.


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