This was written by me in May 2009.
Director: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Sanjeev Kumar, Shabana Azmi, Saeed Jaffrey, Farida Jalal, Amjad Khan, Victor Bannerjee, Sir Richard Attenborough, Tom Alter, Farooque Shaikh
Shatranj Ke Khilari, based on Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same name is about two friends Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey), who are so obsessed with the game of chess that they neglect their wives and are indifferent to the kingdom of Awadh being seized by the East India Company. The ruler of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) is more into singing, dancing and poetry than administering the Kingdom of Awadh and the British General Outram (Sir Richard Attenborough) uses this as an excuse to seize the kingdom.
The movie takes digs at the Nawabi culture – how the Nawabs were more into playing games of make believe wars (chess) rather than fighting actual wars. The movie shows how the King was more into art and poetry rather than ruling and defending the Kingdom and how the king was resigned to his fate. The movie also shows how the Kingdom of Awadh was annexed without a fight.
Some scenes are very good like the one where Sanjeev and Saeed go to a friend’s house to play chess or the one where Saeed Jaffery comes home to find Farooque Shaikh hiding in his house or the one where they brag about their ancestors and the final fight scene.
Some may find the movie a little slow-paced especially the scenes between Sir Richard Attenborough and Tom Alter and the scene where Amjad Khan is lamenting about his crown. There is no background music in some of those scenes and it adds to the feeling of it being slow paced. The movie is very entertaining whenever Sanjeev and Saeed are on screen.
Sanjeev Kumar gives one of his finest performances. His expressions change from frown to anger to sarcasm to laughter all in a few minutes. Shabana Azmi is brilliant as the neglected wife who hates chess. Saeed Jaffrey, Farida Jalal, Amjad Khan, Victor Bannerjee, Sir Richard Attenborough, Tom Alter, Farooque Shaikh all give very good performances and Amitabh Bachchan is brilliant as the narrator with his sarcastic commentary.
Dialogues by Satyajit Ray, Shama Zaidi, Javed Siddiqui are excellent. There are dialogues in English, Urdu and the local Awadhi dialect. Cinematography by Soumendu Roy is excellent. Choreography by Birju Maharaj is very good. Art Direction by Bansi Chandragupta & Ashoke Bose is very good.
Satyajit Ray’s direction is brilliant. He captures the period and the culture very well. The animated scenes are done very well too. This is definitely one of his finest movies and one of the best historicals ever made in India.
This film was nominated for the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival, 1978. It won the Filmfare Awards for Best Director (Satyajit Ray), Critics Award for Best Movie and Best Supporting Actor Award (Saeed Jaffrey).
Rating: 4 / 5 (Brilliant).