Comic Representations of Indigenous Enterprise in Daniel Mann’s The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) and Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players (1977)

  • Reena Dube
Part of the Language, Discourse, Society book series (LDS)


Cultural representations of non-European indigenous enterprise are dogged by the false necessity to prove that indigenous innovations and sciences are as efficacious and successful as Anglo-American technologies and colonial enterprises. This positivist project is doomed, indigenous enterprise cannot appear or represent itself as the equivalent of colonial enterprise without falling prey to the colonial project of exploiting the resources and labour power of the colony. The centre-periphery relation determines cultural representations of indigenous enterprise. Depicted as the exact inversion of colonial enterprise, indigenous enterprises soon begin to function as the inferior half of colonial enterprise. By discursively situating indigenous enterprise as the mirror opposite of colonial enterprise, cultural texts like Daniel Mann’s The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) construct indigenous inventions and innovations, not as the equal of colonial enterprise but as its auxiliary, enhancing the productivity of the imperial economy, and the colony becomes the space for the recuperation from colonial enterprise’s failures and mistakes.


British Rule Chess Player East India Company Mirror Opposite Chess Game 
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  1. 1.
    British and American reviewers of the film recognized that in The Chess Players, Ray foregrounds chess as an exemplar of the traditional innovations and inventions of India, even though most of them were unimpressed by Ray’s cinematic analysis of British rule over India. See David Ansen’s review in Newsweek, 1978 and Robert Hatch in The Nation, 1978 cited in Chidananda Das Gupta ed., Film India: Satyajit Ray; An Anthology of Statements on Ray and by Ray (1981).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Robinson describes this period in Ray’s life: “he (Ray) was also keenly interested in chess. Over the next ten years or so this became an addiction — the main bond (along with Western classical music) between him and his first English friend, an RAF serviceman with time on his hands in Calcutta in 1944–1946… After this friend was demobbed, Ray found himself without a partner and took to playing solitaire chess. Over the next few years he became engrossed in it and bought books on the subject, which he would soon decide to sell to raise money to shoot pilot footage for his first film Pather Panchali. His passion for chess disappeared only with the onset of a greater passion: film-making” (cited in Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye [1989] 4).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Vern Snieder’s novel is generally considered the best-known American work about Okinawa, despite being a work of fiction. Sneider wrote another novel about Okinawa, titled The King from Ashtabula (New York, 1960). John Patrick not only wrote the Broadway version and the screenplay for the film, he also wrote the television version.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    In 1955, Independent Film Journal named Brando Hollywood’s top money-making star. Brando’s clout can be gauged by the fact that his MGM contract gave him the right to select the film’s director. I invoke Brando in my analysis of the film as an activist and oppositional cultural worker who has consistently critiqued American imperialism at home and abroad. The available biographies of Brando record the fact that he publicly expressed his disenchantment with the film’s aesthetics and politics. See Peter Manso, Brando The Biography (1994);Google Scholar
  5. Bob Thomas, Marlon: Portrait of the Rebel as an Artist (1973).Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Okinawa has been in the news in the last decade because of the continuing military occupation of the island by the US military. After the United States ended its occupation of Japan in 1952, it maintained US sovereignty over Okinawa till 1972. In the words of the American general Douglas MacArthur, Okinawa functioned as the keystone of the Pacific for the United States. Thereafter the United States continued to maintain military bases in the island despite the objections of the Okinawans. The rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl by three US servicemen in 1995 and the recent news of another rape by a US serviceman in 2001 foreground the violence that continues to be perpetuated by the continuing military presence of the United States. Okinawa was in the news this year also for the disparaging remarks made about the Okinawans by a US military personnel. For a general account of American—Japanese relations see Walter LaFeber’s, The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History (1997); Gerald Astor, Operation Iceberg: The Invasion and Conquest of Okinawa in World War II — An Oral History (1995).Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    One of the lesser-known political contexts of Ray’s The Chess Players is the political event that came to be known as the Emergency years, denoting the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration of a country-wide emergency in June 1975 till early 1977. It is generally acknowledged that Ray’s oppositional stance is articulated in the film he made in the Emergency years, titled Jana Aranya (The Middle Man, 1975), in which there is a caricature of Indira Gandhi on the wall in one of the scenes of the film. Ray called this scene in Jana Aranya “the most explicit criticism of Congress ever put into a film” (207). In these Emergency years of nationwide repression of the intelligentsia and oppositional parties and activists, Ray was also composing the screenplay of The Chess Players. Ray comments that his film The Chess Players is “a timeless comment on non-involvement” (245). It is possible that Ray found, like many other oppositional intellectuals, that his critique of the apolitical intel-lectual in the state terrorism of the Emergency years would be more persuasive if he located his critique in a story about another era. Certainly this is the direction of Ray’s melancholy observation, “I find the contemporary scene doesn’t lend itself to crystallization” (cited in Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eve [1989] 207).Google Scholar
  8. 18.
    Ray’s politics is evident from his film on the Bengali youth who suffered unemployment in the post-Independence years in Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970). In this film the hero’s brother represents the disaffected youth that spearheaded the Naxalite movement. In his letter to his biographer and friend, Marie Seton Ray describes Pratidwandi as “the first truly contemporary film made here — and basically though not blatantly — pro-revolution — because I feel nothing else can set the country up on its feet” (cited in Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye [1989] 204). As an independent-minded fellow traveller of the left wing in Bengal, Ray articulated his own understanding of key themes in Subaltern Studies historiography: the cynicism of the postcolonial urban youth Jana Aranya (The Middle Man, 1975): the critique of state repression by Indira Gandhi’s government (Hirak Rajar Deshe [The Kingdom of Diamonds], 1980), Ranajit Guha identifies this period of state repression as crucial in the formation of the political consciousness of the Subaltern Studies collective (A Subaltern Studies Reader 1986–1995, ed. Ranajit Guha [1997] xi); It is clear that Ray was familiar with their work and drew on Sumit Sarkar’s critique of Swadeshi Movement in The Home and the World or Ghare Baire (1984). See Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (1989) 265.Google Scholar
  9. 23.
    Ray, The Chess Players and Other Screenplays, ed. Andrew Robinson (1989) 3.Google Scholar
  10. 25.
    Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (1989) 241.Google Scholar
  11. 26.
    Chidananda Das Gupta, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray (1980) 161–162.Google Scholar
  12. 32.
    Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray (1971);Google Scholar
  13. Alaknanda Datta and Samik Bandyopadhyay, ed., Satyajit Ray: A Film by Shyam Benegal (1988).Google Scholar
  14. 36.
    Ray chooses these particular objects — nuts, spices and vegetables — as a metonymy. The objects refer to the history of colonialism: the Company came trading for luxurious items like spices and took over the country. Also Ray humourously uses them to signify the native correlate of British “improvement” of the chess game by making it a faster game. Moreover the episode refers to Ray’s theoretical position on indigenous enterprise, which is based on his practice as an artist who continually invents and adapts to postcolonial realities. For instance Ray could not afford to lose shooting days due to the monsoon, yet for his Benaras house set in Aparajito, (The Unvanquished, 1956) he wanted the realism of natural light. The traditional courtyards of Benaras houses are open to the sky and convey a peculiarly diffused daylight. Therefore Ray and his cameraman Subrata Mitra invented shadowless bounce lighting. Mitra reflected the lights on a wooden frame above the courtyard, stretching cheap cotton cloth over the frame. Thus Ray proved that indigenous innovation in the film medium can be produced, not through enormous funds, but in the material circumstances of sheer necessity and the need for economy because Ray’s films always operate on a shoestring budget. For an excellent account of the Ray-Mitra innovation of bounce lighting see Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray (1971) 118–119.Google Scholar
  15. 42.
    For Freud the term “disavowal” is linked to psychosis and denotes “a specific mode of defense which consists in the subject’s refusing to recognize the reality of a traumatic perception” (Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith [1974] 118). For example, when children first discover the absence of penis in the girl, they disavow it and believe they do see the penis. I deliberately use the term “disavowal” in connection with Khurshid to indicate that her normative sexual desire in the context of the social-political upheaval taking place in Lucknow is the refusal to recognize the reality of a trauma.Google Scholar
  16. 47.
    By the death of desire I do not imply the death of the subject. By the phrase “death of desire” I draw attention to two features of colonialism: colonialism exacerbates the alienation of the subject and sets the desire of the colonized into infinite displacement and play, Meer and Mirza’s desire is displaced onto an obsession with chess. As a consequence Meer and Mirza display the underlying structure of the obsessional neurotic. The obsessional neurotic is preoccupied with the question which is “a question which being poses for the subject;” it is the question about Death, “ ‘To be or not to be?,’ ‘Am I dead or alive?’ or ‘Why do I exist?’” (Jacques Lacan, The Seminar: Book III: The Psychoses, 1955–56, trans. Russell Grigg [1993] 174, 179–180). The obsessional responds to the question with guilt and a feverish desire to justify his existence, therefore the obsessional performs some compulsive ritual, like Meer and Mirza’s games of chess.Google Scholar
  17. Also see Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (1996) 126.Google Scholar
  18. 50.
    The Bara Imambara or House of Imams is one of the only buildings that remains of the original Lucknow, built by Asaf-ud-Daula in 1784, the time of the great famine, to give work and money to the rich and poor alike. Its arched roof, built without the support of a single beam, is the largest of its kind in the world and the workmanship therefore is counted amongst one of the wonders of the world. See Sharar’s, Lucknow: The Last Phase, op. cit., 47. “I have never seen an architectural view which pleased me more from its richness and variety, as well as the proportions and general good taste of its principal features” wrote Bishop Heber in Narrative of a Journey Through the Upper Provinces of India (1828) (Selections from Heber’s Journal, ed. M. A. Laird [1971] 174). On the destruction of the city in the mutiny and its aftermath by the British, see John Pemble, The Raj, the Indian Mutiny and the Kingdom of Oudh 1801–1859 (1977) 249–257.Google Scholar
  19. 54.
    One of the best-known cinematic statements about the relation between Lakhnavi culture and the language of friendship is Guru Dutt’s Chaudvin ka Chand (1960). The film’s plot draws from an oral legend about the nawab who discovers that the woman that he has been in love with is the wife of his friend. He prefers to kill himself rather than betray his friend. As a Marxist and nationalist critic of feudalism, Guru Dutt is critical of the excesses of the culture like the purdah system, but Dutt’s film is an affectionate and loving tribute to Lakhnavi friendship.Google Scholar
  20. See Ashish Rajadhaksha and Paul Willemen’s write-up of Dutt, Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (1999) 93.Google Scholar

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© Reena Dube 2005

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  • Reena Dube

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