Quietude & Victoriana

Sayajit Ray's The Chess Players

published in Film Comment Vol.42 No.4, New York 2006

Satyajit Ray is a director/composer to whom much cine-critical respect has been accorded, yet whose cine-musical status remains under-considered. A key post-war internationalist auteur, his work simultaneously probematises the presumed literary criteria for authorship, and complicates the assumed musicological criteria for composer. The Chess Players (1977) is one of his many films which gives rise to these notions of the director as ‘aural auteur’.

It’s not implausible to read Ray as an ‘anti-masala’ filmmaker who eschews Bollywood celebratory spectacle for Indian societal critique. But aside from obvious high/low dichotomies, a complex net of audiovisual and musicological discordances vibrates the aural skin of The Chess Players. In as much as Bollywood cinema generates highly transcendent narratives from lip-synched musicals, the voice in The Chess Players is a socially rooted one of the spoken rather then the sung. The dialogue is largely live in its recording, creating palpable theatre-stage acoustics enlivened by room tone. The Bollywood musical by contrast is an ornate space of compression, equalization and reverberation. The former accentuates the written script while the latter emblemises the recorded tape.

The quietitude of Ray’s films reflects the contemplative pause disallowed in populist masala cinema and its frequency overload. On one hand, The Chess Players extols the intelligent ear which perceives India’s crowd noise as the din of the unthinking. Scenes depicting a mob cheering and betting at cock fights provide audiovisual shocks to the film’s otherwise calmed passages. On the other hand, the film tersely judges the apocryphal chess players Mirza and Mir as class-privileged elites who cherish the silence within which they engage in strategic plays devoid of all social connection. Ensconced so far from the maddening crowd, these chess players are proportionately out of touch with the populace as they are out of synch with the colonial complexities which frame modern Indian history.

Hostility toward noise is a classical marker as much of cultural elevation as arthouse cinema. Diminuendo sans crescendo: this is the central mode of aural, musical and audiovisual forms that symbolically signify their high status through an excess of quiet. The colonial critique underscoring Ray’s cinema – and thematically embroided throughout The Chess Players – gives rise to a canny nexus of historical arcs sited on noise aversion. For it is in the Victorian era that noise is most noticeably scrutinised as an unwanted invasion of ‘foreign’ utterance.

It is precisely here that The Chess Players performs as a musicological document beyond cinematic scripture or auteur imprimatur. Filmed in 1977 – the same Jubilee Year in which The Sex Pistols released “God Save The Queen” – The Chess Players targets Queen Victoria as a monstrous matron of colonial might. Her underlings feverishly languishing by remote in India must obey her cast iron dictates; her complete divorce from all cultural sensitivity defines her colonial power as abusive and intrusive. The masthead of Victoriana, her distaste for the noise of the masses and her namesake era’s alignment of aesthetics against vulgarity forged the cultural template for art which links town-house to art-house. In its own way, The Chess Players is a post-colonial synonym for The Sex Pistols’ anti-monarch screed: each equate their Queen with silencing mechanisms that divide, diminish and decimate group identity – the people of Oud in the former and the punks of London in the latter.

The Sex Pistols connection is no flip para-synchronous trans-cultural contortion. When one considers The Chess Players from a broadened musicological viewpoint, the Empire truly collapses in both historical and ontological senses. While the film’s refined soundtrack implicitly denies the heady descent of Indian classical court music into the phonological dialect of flirtatious pop ragas, The Chess Players’ apparent silencing of Bollywood bombast ultimately supports the vernacular voice of the people in an uplifting ending.

As the state of Oud is given over to colonial control following the deposition of the Prince, a low-caste boy Kallu (a punk, if you will) watches the procession of the red-jacketed British forces trudge toward the township. Ray’s score for the scene starts as a vapid dirge of Victorian pomp. But in a mix of simplicity and profundity, the reiterated theme becomes ‘infected’ by Indian modals. Each time it ‘becomes more Indian’, synchronised to the passing parade of rear-end soldiers who are not British but Indian, riding elephants not horses. The scene would be comical were it not for the delicate pathos and loaded regret with which the Indian-intoned melody swells and overcomes the tin-soldier tackiness of British military music. It’s a scene that could only come from a director/composer like Satyajit Ray.

Text © Philip Brophy 2006. Images © Kino Video