The dynamic silent film A Throw of Dice, an early classic of Indian cinema, was released earlier this year on DVD by Kino. My DVD review was published in the Turner Classic Movies website while I was at Toronto.
A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash, a lavish romantic adventure from the late silent era of Indian cinema, had been virtually unseen since it was released in 1929. Its restoration by the BFI in 2006 is a revelation, a rediscovery of a visually lush and dramatically energetic drama with a multinational pedigree: produced by Indian actor and entrepreneur Himansu Rai, directed by German veteran Franz Osten, shot on location in India with a European and Indian crew and a mix of German, English and Indian financing.
Adapted from a story from the Hindu epic The Mahabarata, the drama of rival kings and the beautiful woman they both pursue stars Eurasian actress Seeta Devi as the sheltered daughter of the Hermit (Sarada Gupta), a former teacher at the royal court who has fled the corrupt social world to live isolated in the jungle. The world of royal intrigue and corruption, however, comes to the Hermit when the hunting party of two kings marches into his village, complete with a parade of elephants and armies of servants and soldiers. Hospitable but wary, he tries to protect Sunita from these “Men from the world,” but they bring their corruption with them. King Sohan (producer Himansu Rai) tries to murder his cousin, the kindly and trusting King Ranjit (Charu Roy), and the Hermit falls victim to the plots and schemes when he nurses Ranjit back to health after the failed assassination attempt. Ranjit is a romantic and a naif, oblivious to Sohan’s ambitions and schemes (Sunita and her father both suspect Sohan, but oddly never confess their suspicions to Ranjit), and he falls in love with Sunita. But he is also gambler, addicted to games of chance, and Ranjit preys upon Sohan’s weakness for the dice to get both his kingdom and his woman.
Osten is a dynamic director with an eye for spectacular imagery and romantic visions and a gift for visual storytelling and energetic pacing. The story never feels rushed even as the film seems to drive forward at a breathless pace. The dramatic scenes are marvelously mounted against striking backdrops and lavish palace settings. According to film historian Bruce Bennett, Ria’s family name and connections helped them secure those magnificent locations (those palaces!) and the resources it took to mount the film’s spectacular set pieces. The film reportedly used a thousand horses, fifty elephants and 10,000 extras. Along with these theatrically lavish scenes is dramatic footage of jungle wildlife. In the opening scenes, a veritable zoo of exotic jungle denizens flee the thundering procession of the hunting party (except for the tigers, who lazily amble off as if they could barely be bothered by the intruding humans), all with a documentary camera that is startlingly closes to the creatures.
Read the entire piece here.