Ray is often remembered for portraying strong female characters in his movies, namely Charulata, Mahanagar, etc. In Shatranj Ke Khilari, the women characters are depicted only in the foreground, and that too for a very limited period. However, the problematic chess-playing addiction creates a lot of problems in the Nawabi households and leaves their wives alone with their solitude. The Begums of this movie represent two unusual kinds of female characters that Ray movie depicted in his other films as well.
The character of Khurshid (Shabana Azmi) was fed up with Mirza's addiction. She tries her very best to keep their married life alive and tries to seduce Mirza from time to time, but Mirza chooses addiction over lust. Mirza's abstract interpretation of chess is frequently destabilised by Khurshid, who becomes the spokeswoman for Ray. In addition to that, Ray highlights the destabilised character arc of Mirza through the mise-en-scène and camera movements.
For instance, look at the scene where Khurshid is in her bedroom and faking a migraine so that Mirza is tempted by her beauty instead of his imprudent chess game with Roshan. While she tries to seduce him in the zenana (women's part of the house), the response of Mirza leaned more towards his addiction to chess.
He tells her, "Ever since I started to play chess… my power of thinking has grown a hundredfold." This scene suggests that Mirza's statement contradicts his actions, which were a common trait of all Royal Nawabs of the pre-colonial era. His thinking, in reality, was so narrowed down that both the players have eyes only for their board games and don't think about their household or political positions even once. Khurshid points out their dangerous fascination, which has forced Mir's wife to take a lover while they enjoy their game, "You sit hunched over that stupid piece of cloth and jiggle around those stupid ivory pieces. All Lucknow knows that his wife is carrying on with another man. Only you and your friend don't know."
After her staggering verbal outburst, Khurshid then shatters the conventional sexual roles and commands her mate to lie down on the bed. Surprisingly, Nawab quietly obeys her order without any resistance while she brazenly sits above him. This rebellious taking over of the masculinity in the sexual process is a remarkable modification in the predictable narratives of that particular era and the contemporary depiction of women in Indian cinema. In this specific mise-en-scène, Ray reverses the sexual roles of the characters where Mirza is seen here in the customary submissive female position, replicating the scene from Macbeth where Lady Macbeth mocks her husband's masculinity while praying for her own 'unsexing'.
Khurshid seduces Mirza by deliberately objectifying herself so that he will touch her flesh, instead of the ivory symbol of a queen. Here the director pictures Khurshid as a royal Begum slowly annexing her unoccupied area of passion. Scenes for some time linger in the chess room, where Mir Roshan is waiting anxiously, while an abrupt cut pulls us back to the steaming bedroom where the sexual tension is now almost gone.
The silent awkwardness between them is emphasised by the occasional dog barks and horse carriages passing by the street. This failure makes Khurshid accept her defeat and hence distance herself from Mirza, taking a seat on the corner of the bed and avoiding any eye contact with him. These setups clearly indicate her defeat in the sexual arousal game. On the other side, Mirza is concerned not by his lack of masculinity in the 'game of passion', but by the thought of his abandoned chess game.
Khurshid's character is lonely and the longing in her eyes reminds us of the tragic fate of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet: romantic or sexual frustration always leads to a devastating relationship or perhaps death. Khurshid is called 'Begum', which is a royal title undoubtedly, and wears luxurious clothes and pieces of jewellery, but the pain and longing for her husband never actually allow her to be happy. Even after such a painful character sketch, Ray never keeps her problem in the focus, mainly because the pre-colonial Oudh never really cared about feminine problems. This character can be compared directly with Ray's movie Charulata, where Madhabi Mukherjee's character silently searches for another partner to share her loneliness (notice the use of binoculars in her hands from time to time) but the burden of her household and, most importantly, an honest husband kept her desires at bay and hence she never crosses the boundary of being a wife.
In contrast, the Begum of Mir Roshan Ali, Nafisa (Farida Jalal), was having an extramarital affair with a local boy named Aqeel (Farooq Sheikh) and didn't even think about the consequences. He arrives in her bedroom; she grasps him in a sensuous manner while warning him about Mir's presence in the house. Aqeel replies, "Don't worry; a man with his eyes on the chessboard is lost to the world". Ray intercuts shots between the chess game of Mir and Mirza while Nafisa is enjoying the company of her lover in the bedroom. It's similar to the scene discussed above, but here the sexual tension is absent and Nafisa, in contrast to Khurshid, is happy in her bedroom. Suddenly, Mir arrives in the bedroom, leaving both of them frozen in fear, but Nafisa confronts this spontaneous danger quite cunningly.
She cleverly uses the fear and atrocities of Englishmen to justify Aqeel's hiding and Mir Roshan actually believes her. Not just that, he also tells to him that he is perfectly safe there and advises Nafisa to give him hot milk. Then he leaves. After his exit from the bedroom, they laugh and hug each other with a sigh of relief. She uses Oudh's extreme political situation in her favour successfully. That was the only scene where we are introduced to Mir Roshan's household. After that Nafisa never appears in any scene, suggesting that she is left with her lover and maybe that infidelity blooms in the middle of all this chaos.
The concept of infidelity – and that too, by women – is not new in a Ray movie. The character of Nafisa can be linked back to Ray's Ghare Baire, where Bimala Choudhary, even if her husband treated her well, falls for Sandip and loves him passionately without any hesitation. Nafisa can also be studied as a cunning character who represents the Nawabs and Kings of the pre-colonial era, who readily accepted the British Supremacy without any fight and lived their life happily. Mir Jaffar, one of the infamous military generals of Siraj-ud-Daulah betrayed his master and, after the Battle Of Plassey, became the first dependent Nawab of Bengal. In an interview with Udayan Gupta, Ray mentions that he likes to give space to those women characters who really fascinate him and can cope with the given situation, at times better than men. Hence, in my opinion, Nafisa can be considered an ideal Ray female character.
The state of women as shown in this movie is quite different from other movies focussing on the same subject. Shyam Benegal's Junoon and Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan put women in the centre of their storytelling, while Ray chooses to keep the female presence limited in this Premchand adaptation. Women were the worst hit by the 1857 revolts, whether Indian or British. They got brutally raped, killed and even sold into prostitution. The plight of those women goes unheard and still stands neglected in the revolt history; we only remember the heroic male figures (with exceptions like Rani Lakshmibai), and the women's violation is never talked about. Ray, in my opinion, displays that in this movie and uses the tool of 'deliberate negligence' to prove his point.