The Chess Players and The Stranger (Ray, 1977 and 1991)

Two here by Satyjit Ray. I’m trying to catch up on a lot of his filmography. It’s still hard to beat the Apu Trilogy and The Big Citybut I really enjoyed both of these later Ray films.

The Chess Players feels really loose, and more allegorical than I’m used to from Ray. I think of him as a sort of spiritual realist. Maybe close to an Ozu. But this film stands out from the others of his I’ve seen.

Two chess enthusiasts, Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) and Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar), try to find a place to play chess while around them independent India begins to cede to the British.

Even the opening credits, with their dramatic black background and bold colors in the foreground, give the feel that this film might be a bit different:

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 4.03.32 PM

The hand coming in and out of frame, the bold opposing colors…it all feels so surreal. This is a really beautiful film. Ray frames Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan) in such pretty frames. Here we see him so symmetrical and powerful. That later CU – the light reflecting the setting sun – he feels much more vulnerable:

That’s in pretty good opposition to Mir and Mirza, who really just want to play chess (and while this is a comedy, it’s also a tragedy, something that so many Ray films have in common). These guys are often pushed into corners, shot in natural, neutrally colored light, and very often in profile 2-shots:

They rarely seem to occupy their own controlled frames. While they’re at the center of the story in terms of screen time, they’re at the periphery of the greater narrative. That second shot above is a good example of some of the comedy in here. Mir and Mirza lose their chess pieces, so they try to replace them with anything they can find.

I also noticed a “back to the village” theme in here, one that crops up again in his last film, 1991’s The Stranger. In The Chess Players it takes this form:

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 4.05.25 PM

Mir and Mirza have left the comforts of the city in search of chess. They’re a bit lost and a bit out of their element. In The Stranger we see this presented somewhat similarly: a comfortably upper-middle-class family eventually makes their way to the village; in that film, with its far more optimistic read, they find solace and joy at the village. That’s not really the case in The Chess Players, which has a cynical eye.

The Stranger

I love everything about The Stranger up until the super-schmaltzy, overly predictable final 5-10 minutes. But that notwithstanding, it’s really an excellent conclusion to a storied career.

Manomohan Mitra (Utpal Dutt) claims to be Anila Bose’s (Mamata Shankar) long lost uncle. He comes to Bengal for a visit. Anila’s husband Sudhindra (Dipankar Dey) is skeptical.

The film takes place as a series of conversations and monologues, often on the part of Manomohan. It’s a great performance from Dutt. He really looks the part – deep sunken eyes and confident body language giving him the appearance of the worn, storied traveler he is.

I was looking at Ray’s color schemes a lot in this film. It’s dominated by the colors of the Indian flag (plus red). Overall it’s a rather green film, with pops of yellow/orange and red. Ray seems to separate his characters from scene-to-scene with a different color coding. Or, in the case of the first image below, a combo. Sudhindra wears green. Anila wears red. And their son, Satyaki (Bikram Bhattacharya), wears green and red. That’s appropriate because he’s between the two of his parents in their argument:

I’ve been more and more curious how directors shoot their transitions. Here are a few of Ray’s. He really likes to start new scenes – especially when we have a time or location cut – with inserts or close-ups.

He ends this lunch scene with a 2-shot of Anila and Manomohan, and then cuts to a tight CU of a coin for the start of the new scene:

Here we end with a three shot (rather beautifully framed, again in a way that reminds me of Ozu, with Manomohan’s horizontal body occupying the bottom of the frame), and then cuts to an insert of a parachuter:

He goes from this MCU of Manomohan (where he looks nearly directly into the lens – something that happens a few times in the film) to an insert of the bell:

And the last one I took note of, we end with a tight shot of the phone, and cut to a CU of an injured foot:

It’s not just that he likes to begin new scenes with inserts, it’s that these are all graphic matches. If you line them up this way it’s easier to see:

They all occupy basically the same place in frame, have a same basic shape, and are pretty tight. There’s something to moving to a brand new time and place that Ray likes about this. If he cuts to a new scene, but one that’s happening continuously he doesn’t necessarily do this.

This also all feels thematic. Manomohan is so obsessed with the circle of life in his own way. These images reflect that. Some of them are jokes. In Manomohan’s dialogue before the shot of the bell he discusses the moon; we get that the graphic match is also a verbal match.

Like Ozu, yet again, these feel like pillow shots – small glances at other parts of the world, separate from, but surrounding or within the scenes at hand.


About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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2 Responses to The Chess Players and The Stranger (Ray, 1977 and 1991)

  1. Pingback: Distant Thunder (Ray, 1973) and What’s Up, Doc? (Bogdanovich, 1972) | dcpfilm

  2. Pingback: The Best Films of 2017 | dcpfilm

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