"The Chess Players" is set in Lucknow, India 1856. Two chess-obsessed noblemen, Mir (Jaffrey) and Mirza (Kumar), meet everyday to indulge in their passion. In doing so they ignore, and are indifferent to the upheaval that surrounds them. At the same time, the King of Oudh (Khan), so wrapped up in his own creative pursuits, neglects his state duties. This results in an assertion of British rule and a demand that he abdicate.
Ray's historical drama offers a vision of a troubled India steeped in apathy. The film is implicitly political and Ray's subtle use of chess as a metaphor parallels the cunning moves by the British to capture the King. While the two men play, their marriages disintegrate. These images are juxtaposed with those of the King who, while flying kites, has one of his poems skilfully dissected by General Outram (Attenborough), thus providing grounds for annexation.
Although the plot deals with heavy issues, Ray tells the story with a light touch. There are no dramatic scenes, no villains or heroes, and even the fighting at the end of the film is a mute affair. The slow pace can make it tedious to watch at times, but for Ray, allowances should be made. It is the work of a master, and therefore demands your full attention.