‘Chadharangam’ in Telugu or ‘Shatranj’ in Hindi and Urdu are the words used to refer to the game of chess. The game did originate in India, and all these words are not far off from their root word in Sanskrit, ‘Chaturanga.’ With the World Chess Championship in progress, and the champion very likely to be decided tomorrow, in the penultimate game, I thought it’d be a pretty good time to talk about some movies where chess takes center-stage.
1. Shakhmatnaya Goryachka (Chess Fever) (1925)
Ever wondered how the Russians churn out so many grandmasters? Well, this 27 minute silent comedy by Vesvolod Pudovkin, the great Russian master director, might have some answers to that question. He depicts a Russian society obsessed with chess. So much so that, in one shot, a mother watches her toddlers play chess, and exclaims that one of them has played the Queen’s Gambit move. I don’t know what that move is. Do you?
So, if we go into the story, the protagonist, identified only as The Hero, is a young, 20 something male, obsessed with chess. Everything about him is chess. His hat is checkered. So is his neck scarf. So is his tie, And so is his handkerchief. And, finally so are his socks. All his pockets are filled with chess related stuff. Chessboards of various sizes, books that pose chess problems. And so on. We first encounter him playing chess with himself. But he has a date with his girlfriend, and he is already late by more than 2 hours.
He hurries to her, she is mad at him. He falls at her knees, but spreads his kerchief, puts some pieces on it and starts trying to solve the problem. She gets even more mad at him now, and throws him out. But they both do love each other. So would love unite them back. Would love conquer chess? Or would chess conquer love? Find out by seeing the movie.
2. The Seventh Seal (1957)
‘The Seventh Seal’ is a classic of world cinema. It cemented Ingmar Bergman’s reputation as one of the leading directors in the world, and also gave us one of the most iconic images in film history. That of man playing chess with Death.
So what does it mean? What does man playing chess with Death mean? Well, chess simply could be a metaphor for life. We all have to meet Death in the end. But we try to delay, procrastinate that meeting. We lead a good, healthy life, we meet Death later. We play chess well, we could delay the end.
The movie also explores one of Bergman’s most central themes – the silence of God. Set during the Black Death, that great plague which killed millions of people in Europe in the 14th century, the movie shows much suffering and death. And the protagonist, Antonius Block, is disillusioned by all this. He doesn’t understand why God is silent, why He doesn’t act even in the face of so much suffering.
He plays chess with Death, to delay his end and find an answer to his disillusionment. But it is improbable he does.
3. Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players) (1977)
From the masterful hands of Satyajit Ray comes this masterpiece of Indian cinema. This movie is easily the best I’ve seen this year. Set in 1856, the year before the Sepoy Mutiny, as the British folk would like to call it, or the First War of Independence, as us Indians like to remember it, the story has two threads. The first one is that of two nobles obsessed with chess and hookah. They play it all day long. For they have nothing else to do. They neglect their families, their duties, everything to just play chess.
The second thread, is that of the East India Company’s takeover of the state of Awadh, which is ruled by a meek, effeminate Nawab. The Nawab doesn’t put up a fight, the company’s army simply marches into Lucknow. Neither do the nobles, boastful though they are of the valor and exploits of their grandfathers, they just simply run away from Lucknow, to continue playing chess.
Satyajit Ray is probably telling us how our Nawabs and nobles meekly surrendered to the British, indulging in their own obsessions. The nobles, in chess and the Nawab, in arts. But look at the year of release, 1977, and you may have a different interpretation. Those were the days Indira Gandhi had total control over the country, the days of emergency. Satyajit Ray may actually be talking of the middle class, or even Bollywood, who seemed unaffected by the emergency. He may be talking of how these people seemed absorbed in their own lives, unaffected by the larger political picture.