It is not one thing, its another. Paul Mazruskys new movie, " An Unmarried Woman," suffers from a failure to let the heroine speak her mind in so many well-chosen words in the closing moments. Satyajit Ray's new film. The Chess Players, now in its first American theatrical engagement at the K-B Janus 2, risks a complaint of stuffiness through a preponderance of well-chosen word, spoken in both English and Urdu.
The setting is Lucknow, the capital of the old Moslem state of Oudh (now Utter Pradesh), in 1856, as the British East India Company prepares to eliminate the last vestiges of political independence on the subcontinent. The military resident, Gen. Outram, a Scotsman played by Richard Attenborough, is instructed to demand the abdication of the hereditary ruler, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.
The demand seems at once imperious and insensitve. The British have effective control of the region. In his confrontation with Gen. Outram the saddened but uncombative Wajid accuses the British quite plausibly of doing little to help reform the political and administrative chaos he's held responsible for. Pampered and esthetic, preoccupied with the composition of poetry and music, Wajid is arguably a political disgrace, but he appears as harmless as Ludwig of Bavaria.
Whatever the pretext, his removal amounts to a blunt usurpation of power. Although Wajid acquiesced - and lived out his life in luxurious, artistically productive exile in Calcutta - the British made trouble for themselves. Deposing Wajid was one cause behind the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857.
Ray dramatizes the story of Wajid's abdiction in conjunction with the story of how two indolent noblemen of Lucknow, sanjeer Kumar as Mirza and Saaed Jaffrey as Meer, nearly come to grief while pursuing their only interest, chess. The British succeed in forcing a king to resign without a shot being fired. The only shot fired in anger occurs when Mirza and Meer get riled at each other in the course of a chess game.
It's almost too easy to perceive the correspondences between the big story and little story.
The little story is more amusing to watch, in part because Kumar and Jaffrey, who was cast as Billy Fish, the Gurkha subaltern, in "The Man Who Would Be King," are so entertaining and convincing in the roles of charming wastrels. The big story, however, is also burdened with a larger share of historical scene-setting and exposition. As capable as Attenborough and Amzad Khan prove to be in the roles of the public antagonists, Outram and Wajid, their material remains stilted.
Kumar and Jaffrey create a marvelous tragicomic impression of a ruling class in complacent, ijrreversible decline. Only two generations removed from an illustrious warrior class, their characters are elegant softies, spoiled beyond reform but too endearing and childlike to despise. They are even less cut out for political struggle and opposition than their monarch.
They epitomize civilzed behavior at its most obsolete and ineffectual. One of the ironies of the story is that even their form of chess, the original Persian game, is being supplanted by a British variant, designed to loosen things up in the interest of more aggressive play, Mirza and Meer prefer the more sedate, traditional game.
Mirza can't be distracted by a wife craving sexual attention. Meer can't even recognize his wife's indiscretions.
These week, self-indulgent aristocrats share affinities with many of the male characters in Ray movies. Their weakness takes on the dimensions of a national, mythic chracter flaw, perhaps fostered by British imperialism but outlasting it, in the same respect that violent or restless urges persist in Americans long after the close of frontier period.
Like Ridley Scott in "The Duellists," Ray gets a lot of expressive mileage out of the limited budget at his command. He posseses what many overindulged Hollywood filmmakers often lack: a view of history. "The Chess Players" is a little formal and static, but it's enriched by the comprehension of an exceptional film artist, who perceives clearly what this historical parable signifies for his country and his compatriots.