Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) play chess oblivious to their wives and the world
Satyajit Ray is one of the great film directors. He's up there with Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fassbinder, and the rest of them. 'The Chess Players' (1977) is an affectionate satire on the decadence of Indian society in 1856, the year before the Mutiny that ignited the long struggle for independence from British colonial rule. The two central characters are obsessed with playing chess, oblivious to the personal and political upheavals around them. This piece of dialogue demonstrates that Ray was also an accomplished writer. The British are playing their own game of chess, and General Outram, who has been sent to take over the kingdom of Avadh under the pretext of the Nawab's misrule, is quizzing his subordinate, Captain Weston, about the Nawab.

Captain Weston (Tom Alter) and General Outram (Sir Richard Attenborough)
Outram: Tell me, Weston, you know the language, you know the people here - I mean, what kind of a poet is the King? Is he any good, or is it simply because he's the king they say he's good?
Weston: I think he's rather good, Sir.
Outram: You do, eh?
Weston: Yes, Sir.
Outram: Do you know any of his stuff?
Weston: I know some, Sir.
Outram: Well, can you recite it? Do you know it by heart?
Weston: (taken aback): Recite it, Sir?
Outram: Yes, I'm not a poetry man. Many soldiers are. But I'm curious to know what it sounds like. I rather like the sound of Hindustani.
(Weston remains silent, slightly ill at ease.)
Outram: Are they long, these poems?
Weston: Not the ones I know, Sir.
Outram: Well, go on man, out with it!
(Weston recites a four-line poem.)
Outram: Is that all?
Weston: That's all, Sir.
Outram: Well, it certainly has the virtue of brevity. What the hell does it mean, if anything?
Weston: He's speaking about himself, Sir.
Outram: Well what's he saying? It's nothing obscene, I hope?
Weston: No, Sir.
Outram: Well, what's he saying?
Weston (coughing lightly): 'Wound not my bleeding body. Throw flowers gently on my grave. Though mingled with the earth, I rose up to the skies. People mistook my rising dust for the heavens.' That's all, Sir.
Outram: Hmmnnn. Doesn't strike me as a great flight of fancy, I'm afraid.
Weston: It doesn't translate very well, Sir.
Outram: And what about his songs? He's something of a composer, I understand? Are they any good, these songs?
Weston: They keep running in your head, Sir. I find them quite attractive.
Outram: I see.
Weston: He's really quite gifted, Sir.
(Outram glances briefly at Weston and begins to pace the room thoughtfully.)
Weston: He's also fond of dancing, Sir.
Outram: Yes, so I understand. With bells on his feet, like nautch girls. Also dresses up as a Hindu god, I'm told.
Weston: You're right, Sir. He also composes his own operas.
Outram: Doesn't leave him much time for his concubines, not to speak of the affairs of state. Does he really have 400 concubines?
Weston: I believe that's the count, Sir.
Outram: And 29 'muta' wives. What the hell are muta wives?
Weston: Muta wives, Sir. They're temporary wives.
Outram: Temporary wives?
Weston: Yes, Sir. A muta marriage can last for three days, or three months, or three years. Muta is an Arabic word.
Outram: And it means temporary?
Weston: No, Sir.
Outram (raises his eyebrows): No?
Weston: It means-er, enjoyment.
Outram: Oh. Oh yes I see. Most instructive. And what kind of a king do you think all this makes him, Weston? All these various accomplishments?
Weston (smiling): Rather a special kind, Sir, I should think.
(Outram stops pacing, stiffens, turns sharply to Weston.)
Outram: Special? I would've used a much stronger word than that, Weston. I'd have said a bad king. A frivolous, effeminate, irresponsible, worthless king.