When India was run like a company – Shatranj ke Khiladi

This post will take the same time to read as the song will play.

Still photo of two aristocratic men playing a chess game taken from a scene of the movie "Chessplayers"

If you love cinema and storytelling, Satyajit Ray should be a familiar name. Recently, I checked out the movie “Shatranj ke Khiladi” or “Chessplayers” as the English release was called.

It was on my list of movies to watch for many years and I only vaguely remember watching it when I was a child.

The story is about two chess fanatics and elites of Awadh, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali played by Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffery. The plot unfolds in the backdrop of the East India Company taking over the administration of Awadh by deposing the eccentric Wajid Ali Shah played brilliantly by Amjad Khan.

The story of these two aristocratic friends flows with the backdrop a bloodless coup on Awadh by a handful of British soldiers. The Awadh elite talk of resistance, valour and glory from a bygone times but ultimately let the Company take over without a whimper.

The corporate takeover of India by British East India company is complete and feels almost inevitable as gravity through the film. The efficiency and precision of corporate governance meant Awadh was left with no real opposition to the whims of the company officers.

The people of Awadh are left with neither defences or concern by the elite. The elite happily looking away and hoping to find themselves a comfortable cushion to sit on and continue playing their games while smoking opium hookahs.

At the end, Mirza exclaims to Miir, they will have to enter Lucknow under the cover of darkness, as they both will need to hide their faces.

The Ray classic beautifully crafted and has a lot to say without spelling it out. It captures the times of impending disaster quite well and is ably supported by a fantastic star cast.

India ultimately being run like a company led to several famines and disastrous economics at a levels previously unseen, leading to several millions perishing and even more impoverished.

A year after the takeover of Awadh was the year 1857, when several parts of India rebelled against the rule of the East India Company.


Check out some absolutely beautiful stills from the film at Satyajit Ray Archive (wish it had a better interface though).

Richard Attenborough played James Outram in the film, in a few years went on to produce and direct the Oscar award winning Gandhi.

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