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Check Mate: Chess in Celluloid

The game seems to involve politics, philosophy, death and even warfare, amongst other prerogatives, leading to the pride and emotions associated with various nations. In
chess in cinema
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If you are a film buff, chances are that you would have watched Netflix’s much-loved miniseries The Queen’s Gambit. Easily one of the finest outings for the game of chess, it is based on the Walter Tevis novel of the same name. Beth Harmon, a gifted young chess player struggling with an addiction of alcohol and tranquilizer pills. This journey, among other things, brings out the dark side of chess, while also delving into the mental toll that it has on the players. 

Throughout cinematic history both Indian and foreign, there have been many such instances of fascinating stories that are related to the game of chess. Unlike other sports like wrestling or running maybe, what is fascinating about chess and the nature of this game, is the range of different narratives that it gives birth to in the players and therein the story itself.  The game seems to involve politics, philosophy, death and even warfare, amongst other prerogatives, leading to the pride and emotions associated with various nations. In the hands of good filmmakers, the game seems to take on added dimensions that only add to the thrill of complex storytelling. In this regard, one is obviously immediately reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) where the story revolves around a disillusioned 14th century knight Antonius Block playing a game of chess with Death. The various complexities and emotions that arise within the film, have only paved the way for many other varied films with chess as a leitmotif of sorts. 

In the year 1977, Satyajit Ray released a film called Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players). The film was based on a story by Hindi writer Munshi Premchand. The film is set in the Lucknow of 1856 and the story loosely revolves around Wajid Ali Shah, the indifferent Nawab of Oudh, the last in his line before the British take over everything. 

Shatranja ke khiladi (1977) is set in the Lucknow of Wajid Ali Shah

The film also revolves around the characters of Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, two landlords (and friends) who live in Lucknow, and are more often than not found indulging in their favorite game of chess. The game here is a metaphor of course that runs throughout the story and is representative of the decadent order of things, while these two influential men show a remarkable lack of concern, even while knowing of the impending doom that awaits them. The game of chess is shown as being played in the traditional style here though. 

Other than being an intriguing film, this was Ray’s first and only full-length Hindi feature film, and the only film in Indian celluloid to give so much prominence to the game of chess. Shatranj Ke Khiladi drew a lot of attention to chess, its importance as a socially binding game, the interest level it piqued in people, and just how mesmerizing it could be for the players. But having said that, the game of chess has had a rather dubious reputation in the subcontinent since ancient times. The story of the crown prince Yudhishthira who loses his entire family and kingdom in a game of chess, might have lingered in our minds, and cast a mighty shadow on the game and its depiction too. Though the game depicted in Mahabharata is actually called Chaturanga, it is considered to be an early precursor to modern chess. 

Still from Queen of Katwe by Mira Nair

In recent times though, with professional chess championships gaining reputation worldwide, and parents increasingly encouraging their wards to try out professional chess, there have been several other representations of chess on celluloid that have highlighted not only the politics involved with the game but also the personal and socio-political aspiration it represents for the younger generation. The 2016 biographical drama, Queen of Katwe, a film by Mira Nair is a fine example of the game associated with an aspirational angle. Nair’s film follows the life and journey of a young girl, Phiona Mutesi, who finds an affinity with chess and is singled out as a promising player. What happens next to this young Ugandan chess player, and her rise from the slums of Kampala is a miraculous as well as a sensitive tale of aspirations and the ensuing politics that are part of such tales. 

With an increasing number of films based on the lives of sportsmen, it would be interesting to watch out for films that are woven around the intricate game of chess and the ensuing storylines that come to life as a result. 

Images courtesy: Wikipedia

Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a Bangalore based poet and writer. She has four books to her credit – The Hungryalists (Non-Fiction), One Dozen – Hasan Azizul Huq (Translation), Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen – Bengali Cinema’s First Couple (Non-Fiction) and Where Even The Present Is Ancient: Benaras (Poetry). Maitreyee is organiser of Bengaluru Poetry Festival, and managing editor of The Bangalore Review – a literary journal.

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