Chess has long been seen as a symbol of intelligence, long enough for the idea to be challenged more than once, as in Satyajit Ray's 1977 film Shatranj Ke Khiladi (शतरंज के खिलाड़ी) , or The Chess Players. A melancholy satire on the disconnect between the strategies of rulers and the lives of their people, the film juxtaposes broadly comic scenes in the lives of two wealthy chess players with the British annexation of Oudh just before the 1857 Indian Rebellion. The film is funny, sharp, and surprisingly tender.
The nineteenth century saw a few notable uses of chess to parody the attempt of human beings to manage civilisation with abstract strategic ideas. Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass is perhaps the most memorable illustration of the absurdity of applying the rules of chess to real people, Carroll using the joke to satirise the hubris of adults who think they can organise life by strictly logical terms. In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy used Napoleon Bonaparte's fondness for chess to illustrate how little the man's strategies were related to the experience of the common soldier or the civilians whose lives he impacted.
Shatranj Ke Khiladi begins with a brief history of British and Indian relations, featuring a sinister and amusing animation of one British Governor General of India, Dalhousie, describing Indian territories as cherries for Britain to eat. But Ray's satire is not reserved entirely for the British. While he shows the king of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) in a sympathetic light, the man's neglect for state affairs and pursuit of sensual pleasure is shown to be partly the cause for the British takeover.
The film features a few nice musical numbers and a song apparently composed by the king himself. There's also this lovely dancing girl:
The British are represented by General James Outram (Richard Attenborough), who seems to sympathise with the king's position and seems to find the process he's in charge of to be dreadfully awkward more than anything else.
These scenes are intercut with the lives of two wealthy nobles, Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir (Saeed Jaffrey), whose obsession with playing Shatranj, the Indian version of chess that pre-dates the familiar European form, has caused them both to neglect their wives. Mirza's wife (Shabana Azmi) tries different strategies of her own to pull her husband away. When physical seduction fails, she steals the chess pieces but is thwarted again when Mirza and Mir substitute nuts, tomatoes, and peppers for the lost pieces.
Mir's wife (Farida Jalal) is dismayed when the two men take to playing at hers and Mir's home because Mir being away had made her carrying on an affair with Mir's nephew more convenient. Amusingly, Mir remains ignorant of the affair even when it's happening right under his nose, much to Mirza's amusement.
Despite the serious stakes involved in the film, the lives of the two men are played for broad comedy, even when they try to borrow chess pieces from a dying man. But this culminates in a fascinating moment when both men are forcibly made to realise how their abstract obsession has led them insensibly into dangerous physical conflict.