Overdue but cloudy view

Satyajit Ray's 'The Chess Players' and Postcolonial Theory - Apu and After
September 29, 2006

Even though the Bengali film-maker Satyajit Ray (1921-92) has long been hailed as one of the greatest artists in cinema, film theorists have never shown much interest in his work. One would have thought that the cultural and political issues Ray explored over 40 years of film-making would have generated acres of scholarly analysis, but that has not been the case. The two volumes under review illustrate both what we have missed and what we have been spared.

Reena Dube's book is an ambitious analysis of Ray's Hindi/Urdu film The Chess Players (1977). Made late in Ray's career, it was a bold departure. For the first time, he did not work in his own language (Bengali) or with hisusual spartan budget. It is also Ray's only film with extensive reconstructions of historical events and personalities.

Although the two chess players were taken from a 1924 short story by Munshi Prem Chand, Ray devoted substantial portions of his film to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, his nemesis General James Outram (played by Richard Attenborough) and the political chess match they played in 1856 just before the takeover of Awadh by the East India Company. Despite being castigated by some Indian critics as insufficiently nationalistic, Ray's reconstructions deserve careful study.

Central to Dube's analysis of The Chess Players is her understanding of Ray as a "postcolonial" artist, as suspicious of colonialist interpretations of Indian history as of nationalist ones. Colonialists, Dube argues, devalued Indians - and especially their native rulers - as indolent, unenterprising and undisciplined. For all their opposition to colonial rule, the nationalists followed the colonialists in finding the ruling classes, men of Wajid Ali Shah's ilk, repulsive.

As the standard biographies record, Ray initially shared that revulsion. Gradually, however, he came to regard the nawab as a more complex figure: a bad ruler, perhaps, but an artist worthy of respect. It is this attitude, Dube contends, that makes The Chess Players a postcolonial work. Instead of echoing colonialist and nationalist views of the nawab as a monster, Ray depicts a flawed ruler redeemed by artistic and musical talents.

It is a thought-provoking analysis, and Dube supports her case by bringing in Ray's other films. Her often perceptive discussions, however, are obscured by turbid style and jargon. She never suggests anything, she "intervenes"; when Wajid hands over his crown to General Outram, Ray celebrates his "alterity". Nor does Dube know Ray as well as she ought to - she calls Two a documentary, locates Abhijan in Rajasthan and claims that Ray had British friends as a teen-ager. Moreover, her belief that Ray's work can be seen in isolation from Bengali society limits her significantly. The distance from nationalist as well as colonial notions that she rightly detects in The Chess Players , for instance, probably has more in common with the views of Rabindranath Tagore than with the tenets of postcolonial theory.

For all its flaws, however, Dube's book is far more stimulating than Apu and After , a collection of essays on Ray's oeuvre. The pick of the bunch is Ujjal Chakraborty's study on the significance of servants in Ray's work.

Chakraborty's observations on The Postmaster and Charulata are very perceptive, and I hope he will develop his essay further. Suman Ghosh's analysis of Kanchanjangha is also worthwhile. Critics have always found Ray's films musical in structure, and Ghosh reveals how Ray "composed" one of his most deeply musical scripts. Sadly, most of the other contributors are so eager to display their mastery of theory that they do not have much time for the films. The prose is generally incomprehensible, the arguments impossible to fathom.

One example must suffice: according to Sibaji Bandyo-padhyay, the first shot of Days and Nights in the Forest tells us that there will be a "sudden upsetting of a pre-laid, well-orchestrated scheme that inaugurates a historical interrogation of nostalgia itself, enabling thereby one to identify the contemplative subject who 'desiring desire' stands 'twice removed' from the domain of 'practical-critical activity'". What does this mean and how does it add to our understanding of the film? It is not an isolated example.

Theory, when used intelligently, can offer valuable insights (as in some sections of Dube's book), but more often it seems to generate arid, self-indulgent verbiage. After groaning my way through Apu and After , I no longer lament the lack of academic interest in Ray's films. That neglect, I now feel, has been a blessing.

Chandak Sengoopta is reader in history, Birkbeck, University of London.

Satyajit Ray's 'The Chess Players' and Postcolonial Theory: Culture, Labour and the Value of Alterity By Reena Dube

Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 256
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 1 403 94629 9

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