The cerebral sport of chess has conflict interwoven into the story, when it comes to match play. Two kings at war with each other in a duel till one of them goes down, powerful queens calling the shots as it happens in palace intrigues. Armies facing off against each other on a designer battlefield, patterned on white and black squares. There is a time for thought and time for action from contestants, moves are made against the clock ticking away. A main plot and subplots are layered across the chequered board. Little wonder then that movie makers latched on to the appeal of using the board game to script a story for a different type of audience.
With the matches in full flow at the 44th Chess Olympiad 2022 in Mahabalipuram, the time is right to look back at chess-themed films to emerge on the big screen…. Shatranj Ke Khiladi (released in 1977), Wazir (2016) are Hindi movies in that genre. Amitabh Bachchan is a common link…. as narrator in the first and as a performer in the second movie. The famous Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (title renamed The Chess Players before international release) wove in passionate players, Mirza Sajid Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) from Awadh province in pre-independent India.
The storyline, based on a story by legendary Munshi Premchand, deals with these two noblemen detached from reality. The British annex Awadh (also called Oudh), whose wealthy noblemen escape to a faraway village for a game of chess. Shatranj Ke Khiladi is an attempt by director Ray to bring out the craze the sport of chess can create in royalty then, in an era when kingdoms were targets of conquest. Wajid Ali Khan, the ruler of Awadh (played by Amjad Khan), is portrayed as a character devoted to religion, promoter of arts and language. He was sent on exile to Bengal by the British, away from Awadh which later became a hotspot in the rebellion against rulers.
As a brain game, chess has very positive connotations, as is visible from the phenomenal way the sport, played with physical black and white pieces, has spread across the oceans. The 44th Chess Olympiad, played in Mahabalipuram, drew representation from 187 nations spread across continents. India is a chess power, possessing enough talent in the bank to field three teams (India A, India B, India C) to cover up for a withdrawal. Magnus Carlsen,31, representing a small nation from Europe, is the main attraction at Chennai. Every move by the Norwegian, on and off the board adds to his aura as the current world champion.
The Norwegian, among the competitors at the ongoing Olympiad, is a chess prodigy on whose early life a documentary was made. ‘Magnus’ by Benjamin Ree, attempted to understand the reasons behind the emergence of an exceptional talent, a Grandmaster at 13 years under the tutelage of father Hendrik Carlsen. The youngster got an offer from the one and only Garry Kasparov to coach. Carlsen refused, opting to find his own path to the summit. A celebrity in the sporting world, more than a chess genius, the 2016 documentary is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the Magnus impact on chess now and in future.
The eyes and cameras tracking him at the Chess Olympiad, everywhere he goes, would make any famous face conscious of the attention. The world champion does not seem affected by the impact his presence has on others. Coming back to Hindi movies, Shatranj…. was entered in the Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear award category for Best Director (Satyajit Ray) in 1978 and got a nomination. Back home in India, the film earned recognition for Ray at the National Film Festival 1978 (Best Hindi feature film). Curiosity about the use of sports scenes in movie storytelling was a hallmark of a master filmmaker.
Amitabh, the narrator in Shatranj, played the role of Pandit Omkar Nath Dhar, a wheelchair-bound chess expert in a crime thriller, titled Wazir (meaning Prime Minister in Indian chess terminology then). Wazir (the Queen in English chess terminology) the movie engages the audience in an interplay between Pandit Dhar and a suspended officer on the Anti-Terrorism Squad, Daanish Ali (Farhan Akhtar) via conversations laced with chess moves. Directed by Bejoy Nambiar, based on Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s story, the plot revolves around Daanish chasing daughter Noorie’s murderer and in the process meeting Pandit Dhar, chess teacher to the daughter earlier.
The director linked several subplots involving the chess-playing Amitabh, known for accepting diverse roles on the big screen. Chess maestros devoting a major chunk of life in pursuit of excellence, like India’s world champion Viswanathan Anand, the colourful Kasparov, stoic Anatoly Karpov and temperamental genius Bobby Fischer, to name a few who made news in the chess world, deserve a cinematic look. Movies capturing how they changed chess forever in different eras and influenced events by sheer force of personality, may attract people to the sport. The footage in Magnus’ documentary included shots of Kasparov and Anand, dominant names then. It was telecast at the Les Arcs International Film Festival 2016 in France.
From 2016 onwards to 2022, avenues to tell a sports story have multiplied. The entertainment industry tapped into this, reaching out via varied platforms beyond the traditional audience.
Chess tapped into the World Wide Web long ago, boomed during the pandemic years via online games, for example, PlayMagus online challenge conceptualised by the Norwegian. FIDE staged two Chess Olympiads in the virtual world (2020 and 2021). Normalcy returned to sport in 2022, as India played the gracious host and committed participant. Numerous male and female players, some with masks, faced off across the table at Chennai.
For those with the inclination to research into a sport played by people with sharp and calculating minds, there is so much happening around chess waiting to be told as stories, beyond the moves with Black and White. Blindfold chess, simultaneous chess, has been staged before by experts, including the Norwegian and the Indian greats, recorded on video. Movies weaving such scenes into the storyline, a display of astonishing memory power, can be as dramatic onscreen as shootouts in a closed room. Movie Moghuls regional and national, fascinated by Indian hockey, athletics, boxing, wrestling, cricket scenes in films released so far, targeting a dedicated theatre audience and the numbers watching on television, can zoom in on the King of Indian chess.
The chess journey took Vishy across the seas, early lessons under mother Susheela in Chennai and later in Manila (Philippines) where his father K Viswanathan was posted, earning the Lightning Kid nickname as a teenager for rapid-fire moves to become India’s first GM at 18 years. Visually attractive happenings in his life including watching La Liga football games in Spain when Madrid was his chess base, competing in a 20-game chess match in 1995 against Kasparov in New York’s iconic World Trade Centre. Russian magazine 64 Chess Review chose him for the Chess Oscar (poll among chess experts and chess
writers) six times between 1997-2008.
To top it all, the 52-year-old has a minor planet named after him.
Astronomer Kenzo Susuki of Japan discovered the planet in 1988, Michael Rudenko of Minor Planet Centre (USA) forwarded the name of his favourite chess player and ‘4538 Vishyanand’ is up there in space. The Vishy Anand effect is seen elsewhere too, among little Indians inspired by him. GM Rameshbabu Praggnanandha, 16, playing at the Chennai Olympiad, is a whiz kid who made Indian chess proud by winning against Magnus Carlsen twice in 2022 during an online rapid chess tournament.
Incidentally, a biopic on Vishy Anand, as he is known in the chess world, is reportedly in the making, according to filmmaker Anand Rai. The actor to play the lead role is to be decided, the movie title yet to be announced. Compressing a living legend’s story, chess action across locations, in a movie format is a challenge, as well as the opportunity for the film world. The pandemic years brought chess into home screens via the online route and so did movies on newsmakers enrich our television, laptop and mobile viewing. Chess stories are waiting to be told.