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Nero complex 

Chess Players an indictment of a nation's foolhardiness

Fans of Indian master Satyajit Ray's tender realism may be pleasantly surprised or shocked beyond belief by The Chess Players (1977).

A political allegory with a gallivanting visual style that can suggest Kenneth Anger's costume campiness, Monty Python's collage-style animation and sudsy TV historical drama, The Chess Players is a distinctly garish shift for the famously restrained, humanistic director.

The Chess Players is set in 1856 India as the British plot a way to topple the reigning King of Oudh in the city of Lucknow.

This struggle between Colonialists and Kings seems stacked from the get-go. The representative of Anglo empire, Gen. Outram (Richard Attenborough), is pompous and mercenary and relies on his aide Capt. Weston (Tom Atler) to inform him of what's going on in the country. King Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) is Eddie Izzard to their Margaret Thatcher, a fey Jack Smith sensualist in flowing silk robes, with a penchant for poetry writing, opera and other lofty, often decadent pleasures. He dreams away his time in his lavish palace -- like a teenager mooning away the hours in her bedroom -- watching a beautiful dancing girl or flying kites and thus ignoring the state of affairs in his own country.

Ray switches, often abruptly, back and forth between doings in the royal abode, the plotting of the nearly mustache-twirling Outram and the central hook of the drama: an extended, obsessive chess game between two aristocrats. The game serves as a politically loaded metaphor for the ruling class' ignorance of the power shift occurring beneath their noses. While rumors of British soldiers massing and local boys being conscripted to fight with the King's forces swirl around them, Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali can think of nothing but chess. Like single-minded boys, they smoke their hookahs and fritter away hours at the game while Mirza's wife -- desperate for attention -- stews and Mir's philandering wife hides a man underneath her bed.

When the chess pieces disappear, the men visit another local aristocrat and surreptitiously play on his parlor chessboard as the man lays dying in the next room. Such petty distractions are not, however, restricted to the upper classes. The lower castes cheer at cockfights in city streets and the bizarre local custom of fighting blindfolded rams.

The message couldn't be clearer in The Chess Players -- an Indian recasting of the story of Nero and his fiddling. Ray's exposition is often unbearably poky and doubly distracting with its languorous crosscutting between the royals, the Brits and the chess players. That stodginess extends to the film's visuals and filmmaking style. Ray's clashing use of tracking shots and stationary, static camerawork has not aged well and has a certain rustiness matched by the brush mustaches, Sonny Bono hair and the aforementioned Monty Python cartoon inserts.

Ray, who died in 1992, took a remarkably stern tone in The Chess Players, condemning his countrymen for allowing fleeting pleasures and personal obsessions to blind them to the British wresting of power away from India.

The Chess Players screens as part of a month-long "Film Festival of India" at the High Museum curated by David Pratt, which will include: a dramatization of local hero Gandhi's life in The Making of the Mahatma (April 6 at 7 p.m.); an Indian adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot (April 20 at 7 p.m.); the Indian slapstick comedy Who Pays the Piper (May 3 at 7 p.m.); In Search of Famine (April 27- 7 p.m.) and Cry of the Wounded (May 4 at 7 p.m.) All screenings at are the Rich Auditorium in the High Museum of Art.

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