October 26, 2009

The Chess Players


Machiavelli thought of politics as a sinister art, filled with treachery and ruled by fear, not by love. Satyajit Ray in his Chess Players creates an image of politics that is similar in many ways. He deals with the events of 1856 in the Kingdom of Oudh. That kingdom was one of the last not to be incorporated into British India, an ancient treaty bound Oudh and Britain together in common allegiance to each other. Yet members of the British elite in India, particularly Lord Dalhousie the Governor General and the British Resident in Oudh, General Outram, wanted to conquer the province and annex its revenues. The crown of Oudh had always supported Britain but fiscally even such support falls short of the kind of control the British wanted. (Some of these characters are fictional- Ray's picture of the status of Oudh before 1856 is not entirely incorrect, but I evaluate this film as a piece of political theory rather than history). The British desire to take Oudh and its acheivement are played out within the confines of the film in which arguments about law, good government and ability to govern are made against the background of a traditional state headed by a dilettante King. On the other hand, Ray's film has a second story which runs alongside his first- two chess players play each other constantly throughout the film, oblivious to the action around them.

One might think that Ray was making an analogy between chess and politics: he is not making that analogy at all. There are analogies made by the characters- particularly between the 'fast chess' of the British with its queen (instead of a minister) and its promoted pawns against the 'slow chess' of India- but I do not think that Ray wants us to see through the eyes of his characters. His film is an objective rather than a subjective view: the camera sees from in front of or behind the characters and an omniscient narrator is provided to prompt the audience to distance themselves from and question the truth of the characters. Chess though does become a sort of analogy for the movement of politics: the British general, General Outram, does play a game of chess across the board of the Indian state and eventually he captures the King. But the key thing here is that he does win because he actually succeeds, his position is dire from beggining to end, he wins because noone else wants to win- and because noone else gets involved. Politics like chess in this sense turns into a contest between two men battling over a board.

The interesting thing about that struggle is that both in the microcosm and the macrocosm, the chess players are oblivious to events outside the game. They do bring in those events but only as ways to disrupt the game- not to overcome it or obliterate it. One of the two chess players is comically humiliated by his wife- conned into failing to see she is having an affair. The other more tragically cannot seem to make any emotional connection with his wife because his only emotional connection can be with the board. The Chess game is an arid metaphor for life because it takes place outside of the currents of real life- its purpose is to exclude real life- as one character says we play chess because we do not want to see our own faces in the light. In a sense what happens in the Kingdom is the same: the two chess players and the whole population are oblivious of the British intentions, the game is played above and beyond them. In a sense therefore the politics of this are simple- engagement would frustrate imperialism, the crown calling its people into action would force General Outram out (this is a film made at the time of Vietnam and the successful anti-colonialist struggles of the mid-century). But there is another complicated strand to this in which politics, like the chess game, become unreal- who cares who rules if the only consequences are battles between frivolous old men over tables.

This is a perceptive attack on autocracy- both colonialist and Indian. Reviewers are right to say that almost all the characters are portrayed sympathetically- Ray's eye sees their perfections as well as their blemishes. The film is truly humanitarian. The British officer, played wonderfully by David Attenborough, is sinister but also sincere in his patriotism and his impatience with the follies of an 'oriental monarch'. The monarch may be frivolous- with his 400 concubines and 29 pleasure wives- but he is also a conspicuously good man, caring more for poetry than for anger. The chess players are comic not because they are evil or malicious but because they are good men trapped in blindness. Rather than being an attack which attacks personalities, Ray's is so much more powerful because he attacks the flaws in personalities and positions. He acknowledges and shows that these are rounded people, whilst letting us see their flaws. If Aristotle argued that monarchy should exist when a perfect man comes to government, Ray shows that there is no such thing- and that monarchy or empire without such degenerates into a game of chess.

Ray's humanism comes through thus both in his evocation of participation and in his description of the wider tapestry of life: he wants us to see social community as a worthwhile thing, that the chess players have forgotten wrapped in their game, that General Outram has neglected wrapped in his manoervre and that the King knows intuitively but does not know how to provide. This is an excellent film and I will write more about it- but for now, I lay this chess set aside!

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