Being a visual medium, cinema has the ability to create a language of desire. Certain filmmakers are able to create lasting visual representations which resonate with people, regardless of class, identity, background, or culture. 
"Shatranj Ke Khiladi" (The Chess Players) is a 1977 film directed by Satyajit Ray, set in the backdrop of 19th-century India during the British colonial rule. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Munshi Premchand's short story of the same name, which explores the contrasting lifestyles and priorities of the Indian aristocracy and common people during the time of British occupation. Through its characters, the film delves into how individual desires can impact wider society.
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Since its inception, cinema has been a potent tool for expressing human desires. It can be used to convey a variety of wants, including those for independence, adventure, power, love, and success. Certain filmmakers have the ability to use cinema as a language of desire to explore the human psyche in the wider context of our society.
Renowned Indian Director, Satyajit Ray, was heralded for his ability to extract emotion from his subjects and provide context for his audience. His rigorous investigation into the complex nuances that define everyday life and our interactions with our surroundings was most apparent in ‘Satranj ki Khiladi’. It was Ray’s first genuine attempt at capturing the colonial truth in the post-colonial world. Based on a story penned by Premchand, this was the only full-length feature film directed by Ray in a language other than Bengali. Written by Premchand as a satire highlighting the preoccupation of the then ruling class of the Awadh (the Nawabs) with their personal splendour, with abominable indifference towards governance and protection of the kingdom and its subjects. The movie pivots on the obsession of the two aristocrats with the game of chess and utter disdain towards their own family, not to mention the responsibility of the ruler towards the subjects. Ray described his inclusion of chess in the film: “Chess is used as a metaphor for the political manoeuvrings of the Raj, as well as an actual ingredient of a subplot involving two noblemen addicts of the game”. This is captured in the backdrop of the colonial invasion of the country, where the East India Company is seen to tactically checkmate each coveted kingdom through its well-crafted strategy of disarming and occupation in the guile of offering protection.
The story takes place over a week but captures the months and years leading up to the biggest countrywide revolt against the British Empire in 1857. Yet, the plot revolves around the salient characters of the Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali, the British resident of Oudh, Outram, and the two aristocrats with their pathological obsession with the game of chess. Little if any was spoken of the common man of the time. No reference was made to the resistance offered by other kingdoms of the time, such as that of Jhansi and Marathwada. The film rather borders on indulgence in the aristocracy and their personal quirks and obsession. The moral dilemma of the British General in this film is barely reflective of the narration of Premchand, where the description was that of a ruthless despot. Ray was more focused on dissecting the emotional and psychological layers of individual characters and their quirks.
The figure of Mirza Sajjad Ali, who is obsessively devoted to his chess set and neglects his duties as a ruler, is one of the key ways that Ray depicts desire in the movie. Mirza has such a strong desire to keep playing that he is willing to jeopardise the honour of his family and kingdom in order to do so. This demonstrates how our desires can cause us to lose sight of our obligations and priorities, which can lead us to act rashly. The character of Mir Roshan Ali, who is more interested in the pleasures of the flesh than in playing chess, is another way that Ray depicts desire in the movie.
Mir Roshan Ali neglects his responsibilities as a king in favour of courtesans and dancers because of his yearning for physical pleasures. This illustrates how desire can divert our attention from our duties and cause us to engage in pleasures that are ultimately meaningless and unfulfilling.
The relationship between the two protagonists and their ties to their nation is another way in which Ray examines the subject of desire. The British colonial rule threatens their quest for a sense of order and control, which is represented by their fascination with chess. In the movie, their conflict with the British reflects the desire to protect their way of life.
Another form of desire that is explored in the film is desire for companionship and connection. Despite the fact that the characters are all members of the same aristocratic class, they are largely isolated from one another, both physically and emotionally. The only true connections they have are with their wives, Khurshid and Nafisa, respectively. However, even these relationships are complicated by issues of power and control. Mirza sees Khurshid primarily as a source of support and validation for his own desires and decisions, while Mir Roshan Ali sees Nafisa primarily as a source of pleasure and entertainment. As a result, the desire for genuine emotional connection and intimacy remains unfulfilled for most of the characters.
The need for connection and intimacy is another type of desire that is examined in the movie. Despite belonging to the same aristocratic class, the characters are largely cut off from one another on both a physical and emotional level. Their relationships with their spouses, Khurshid and Nafisa, are their only real ties. However, difficulties with power and control exacerbate even these partnerships. While Mir Roshan Ali views Nafisa primarily as a source of pleasure and entertainment, Mirza primarily sees Khurshid as a source of support and validation for his own wishes and decisions.
Ray illustrates the intricate interplay between desire, power, and morality through these many characters' urges. He also emphasises the perils of unbridled desire as well as the necessity for balance and restraint. The movie can be interpreted as a criticism on colonialism's effects on Indian society as well as a critique of the opulent and self-indulgent lifestyles of the ruling class during the British Raj.
In "Satranj ke Khiladi," Satyajit Ray depicts desire as a multifaceted issue, demonstrating how it can both push us and divert us from our obligations and how it can have both beneficial and harmful repercussions. Ray emphasises the interaction between personal desire and a larger social and political context through the characters' chess addiction and their connection to their nation.
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