25 June 2014

Politics and Femininity in 'The Chess Players'

Like most great Indian myth-makers of the last two hundred years, Satyajit Ray is at his most creative when dealing with problems of women and femininity. There can be no better way of acknowledging his 'presence' in the contemporary Indian consciousness than by recognising the social criticisms his construction of womanhood offers. I shall try to give some flavour of this presence by partly re-reviewing a film of his which is apparently concerned only with men and with a 'manly' pursuit, politics. This film, 'Shatranj Ke Khilari' ('The Chess Players'), is based on a famous short story by Munshi Premchand and is Ray's only full-length Hindi film, directed at what may be called a pan-Indian audience. That it failed to reach its intended audience is of course well known. We do no know how far the failure was due to the film itself and how far to the structure of the Indian film industry, but that is not a specially relevant question in this context. For my concern in this re-review is to show that there is not only a politics of statecraft but also a politics of culture, and that all great artists have to deal with the second kind of politics, even when overtly refusing to challenge its basic axioms.

Second, I hope to show that both as a pioneer of the Indian art cinema and as a self-conscious representative of the nineteenth-century 'renaissance' of India culture, Ray cannot but venture a criticism of both the West and the East; and that his criticism of the East cannot but bear the imprint of values popularised by the modern West. I also hope to show that the film's attempt to give expression to Indian cultural values and to the struggle for cultural survival is incidental Ray's artistic purpose. This is because Ray's critique of the modern West is internal to modernity and does not use India traditions, which in Shatranj happens to be the culture of the victims, as the baseline for the film's implicit theory of oppression.


My point of departure is a controversy that was reported some years ago in the pages of a popular weekly, in which Satyajit Ray and the film critic Rajbans Khanna debated a central character in 'Shatranj Ke Khilari,' Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. The original piece by Rajbans Khanna was published under the title 'Ray's Wajid Ali Shah' in The Illustrated Weekly of India (22 October 1978, pp. 49-53), and the reply by Satyajit Ray was published as 'My Wajid Ali is not "Effete and Effeminate,"' also in The Illustrated Weekly of India (31 December 1978, pp. 49-53). As is well known, Wajid ruled over Awadh till his kingdom was annexed by the British in 1856. To the utter contempt of most contemporary British historians and Indian nationalists, he gave up Awadh without firing a shot. In his critique of Ray's film, Khanna tries to be more fair than Ray to the defeated Nawab. Khanna argues that Wajid was not an effeminate feeble ruler, devoid of political acumen and military sense, that Ray had depicted Wajid as such following biased British historians and their Indian factotums, ignoring the views of more reliable chroniclers. Ray, always pugnacious when faced with hostile criticism, replied that his political history was sounder than Khanna's; that his Wajid was a more complex figure than Khanna made out and was, in essence, truer to historical fact, as a personification of the feudal decadence and timidity that helped establish the British empire in India.

Actually, despite Ray's defensiveness, the 'truth' of Shatranj is not dependent on the 'historical truth' of the personality of Wajid. Khanna partly misses the point of a story built around two apolitical aristocrats who are members of the political elite of Awadh. Being compulsive chess-players, they spend their time placidly playing chess while the forcible annexation of Awadh to the British empire takes place. The movie shows how the players make a mess of their lives because of their addiction to the game; how they, after being momentarily disturbed by the more serious political chess going on in their society, prepare to go back to their private game. It seems to be Ray's argument - and also Premchand's - that the easy carelessness of the two protagonists, both about their own lives and about public life in general, reflects their and their kind's distorted sense of reality and their unconcern with the fate of their people.

The 'real' personality of King Wajid--primarily a poet, musician, bibliophile, dancer and lover--is incidental to such a story. He forms part of the feudal backdrop against which the game called British colonialism in India was played, which in turn is the backdrop against which the private game of the two aristocrats has been portrayed. In any case, for his purpose Ray has every right to defy history and depict Wajid as a feudal prototype, a king who fails to perform his kingly functions, who is first an aesthete and only then a ruler. And that is how Ray as a creative artist and a historically self-aware commentator on colonial India consciously depicts his Wajid. At this plane, Ray's commitment to the value of masculine kingliness is no less than Khanna's. He merely differs from this critic in his estimate of Wajid's conformity to these values.

However, the film-maker Ray is more sensitive than the political historian Ray and the psychological and political issues which he raises in his movie are deeper than the historical issues he debates with Khanna. Statecraft, measured by masculinity and skill in realpolitik, and the politics of cultural clash, within persons and outside, are the two intersecting themes that give Shatranj its touch of poetry as well as critical content. General James Outram, British Resident at the Court of Awadh and the man who negotiates the surrender of Wajid, is certainly, as depicted by Ray, more cognisant of these themes than Ray himself. Ridden with more doubts, Ray's Outram knows that the British are flouting their treaty with the Nawab and trying to oust him from the throne of Awadh. Outram makes peace with his conscience by reminding himself that Wajid dances with dancing girls, writes poetry and sings. What could be more unkingly, decadent and--this remains half-articulated--unmanly. At one place in the movie, Outram upbraids his English ADC for being infected with the dangerous virus of the oriental concepts of rulership and with sympathy for a king popular with his subjects for his artistic creativity and scholarship, a king willing to forego martial hypermasculinity to actualise his authentic, more androgynous self. But at the same time, Outram sense the fault lines in his own monolithic concept of politics; he suspects that somehow the king, despite losing his kingdom, has articulated a deeper and more healthy concept of governance.

The denouement comes when James Outram faces Wajid Ali Shah for the final negotiations; in effect, to deliver the ultimatum for surrender. Wajid, determined to avoid bloodshed, takes off his crown and offers it to a highly embarrassed Outram. Outwardly, modern statecraft wins but, against the historical judgment of Satyajit Ray, the traditional vision of the public realm reaffirms its moral stature. And that through the primary agent of modern statecraft, Outram himself.



It is possible to argue that, unknown to Ray, Shatranj is an essay on the clash between two perspectives on womanhood, power and culture. These perspectives arise not from two irreconcilable sets of cultural categories represented by the East and the West; they provide an element of contradiction within each of the two confronting cultures too. Wajid borrows from the indigenous concept of self-realisation which equates saintliness with the ability to transcend the barrier of gender. But he also deviates from the dominant concept of kingship in Indian Islam as well as in the Hindu tradition of Ksatriyahood. Most of his courtiers and many of the ordinary citizens of Awadh know this, and Wajid occasionally appears to be a lonely man fighting a lonely battle with less than complete sanction for his lifestyle in his society. However, ever if only partial, the sanction is there. In his culture, he could create a legitimate space for himself in the public realm.

In Outram's world, too, the legitimacy of hypermasculinity and pure politics is not complete. As his ADC's ambivalence shows, in the jungle of colonial politics persists a vague British disapproval of overt aggression, an almost pathetic attempt to justify the intervention in Awadh in terms of the rules of fair play, a hesitant cognitive respect for the creative androgyny of Wajid, and an uncomfortable ambivalence toward softness femininity and poetry. In spite of the needs of colonialism, the demands of civilisational mission and masculine Christianity, there remains in the English characters of the movie a certain self-doubt, an awareness of elements of their culture that have become recessive but are not entirely dead. Even Outram, that redoubtable hero of British colonialism, is not free of this doubt. There is an unspoken dialogue between him and Wajid which transcends the barriers of culture.

This dialogue reveals the common predicament of the principal antagonists. Both Wajid and Outram are torn men. Apparently, Wajid has full confidence in his own way of life and kingly identity. 'Can your Queen write poetry like me,' he asks a perplexed Outram, 'and do people sing her lyrics the way they sing mine?' But he also nurtures the feeling that he has failed as a man, that perhaps his is not the correct model of kingship. There is a long monologue in the movie where the kind accuses his court of political and administrative failure. The criteria by which he judges his officers are not different from the criteria by which he himself is judged by Outram and Ray.

At this plane, Shatranj holds Wajid responsible for not living up to his own declared values of masculine statecraft. In fact it underscores these values by connecting the Wajid who admonishes his court to the colonial-bureaucratic self of Outram through a speech by the Queen Mother of Awadh to Outram, in which she invokes the principles of fair play and statesmanship. For Ray, there is a domain of discourse in which Indian passivity and cowardice meet their match in British power politics and perfidy, and the Queen Mother's vision of politics marks out that domain. He therefore tries, through the uncharacteristic use of Wajid's and his mother's long speeches, to make peace with his overt values and to deny the alternative political statement that his creative self makes throughout his movie. For if there are two Outrams here, there are two Satyajit Rays, too.

Himself a self-conscious product of the dialogue between East and West absentmindedly brought about by colonialism, Ray depicts Outram's ethical discomfort as if it mainly involved modern concepts of justice and treaty obligations. Yet he hints at Outram's fear that not merely his ADC but he himself might become 'soft' towards the king's androgynous political style. If Wajid is guilty of trying to transcend the 'rightful' divisions between male and female, work and leisure, pleasure and responsibility, the soft and the hard, the political and non-political, Outram is no less guilty of wavering in allegiance to the dominant motif of his culture and the ideology of colonialism. His moral discomfort is even more patent, given the minimal sanction he gets from his own immediate environment, the British-Indian colonial culture, to defy the historical and cultural role imposed on him.

[The foregoing was written by Ashis Nandy and was extracted from the longer piece 'An Intelligent Critic's Guide to Indian Cinema,' originally published in The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves (Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 209-14). 'The Chess Players' is available in full, but without subtitles, on YouTube here and here.]

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