The film is set in 1856 and shows the life and customs of 19th century India on the eve of the Indian rebellion of 1857. The focus is on events surrounding the British annexation of the Indian State of Awadh (also spelt Oudh), the politics of colonial expansion by the British East India Company and the deluded divisions of Indian monarchs.
The film shows in parallel the historical drama of the Indian kingdom Awadh (whose capital is Lucknow) and its Muslim NawabWajid Ali Shah who is overthrown by the British, alongside the story of two shatranj (chess) obsessed noblemen.
The Nawab is portrayed as a debauched but sympathetic figure by Satyajit Ray. He is an artist and poet, no longer in command of events and unable to effectively oppose the British demand for his throne. Parallel to this wider drama is the personal (and sometimes humorous) tale of two rich noblemen of this kingdom, Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali. Inseparable friends, the two nobles became passionately obsessed with the game of shatranj (chess), neglecting their wives and failing to act against the real-life seizure of their kingdom by the East India Company. Instead, the two nobles abandon their families and responsibilities, fleeing from Lucknow to play chess in village exile untroubled by greater events. Ray's basic theme in the film is the message that the detachment of India's ruling classes assisted a small number of British officials and soldiers to take over Awadh without opposition.
The role of Captain Weston, so British in his ways, but in love with Urdu poetry, is also worth noting.
In the last scene, after which Mir shoots at Mirza and complains out loud "I won't have a partner to play chess with", Mirza responds to him "but you have one in front of you!" (thus making him understand that he forgives him). He finally concludes that "after nightfall, we will go back home. We both need darkness to hide our faces."