Directed by Franz Osten
Starring: Seeta Devi; Himansu Rai; Charu Roy; Modhu Bose; Sarada Gupta; Lala Bijoykishen; Tincory Chakrabarty
A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash) (1929)
Take two rival kings, both in love with the same woman, and both addicted to gambling, add some treachery, murder, and plenty of elephants, a cast of thousands, and toss in the exotic locale of India, (as seen through the eyes of a German director), and you’ve got the incredible silent film, A Throw of Dice. Plenty more ingredients are used to further spice up this luscious fable, (including a hooded-cobra, which crawls over a napping man), and they blend magnificently well together, making for a sumptuous experience.
Hunting in the jungles in India, King Sohat (Himansu Rai) plots to kill his cousin, King Ranjit (Charu Roy) by having his servant “accidentally” shoot Ranjit with an arrow. The arrow doesn’t kill Ranjit, and he is brought to the nearby healer (Sarada Gupta), who, along with his beautiful daughter, Sunita (Seeta Devi) nurse Ranjit back to health. Ranjit and Sunita fall in love, and despite her father’s disapproval of the Ranjit, because he is a compulsive gambler, Sunita accompanies Ranjit to his palace island, where they ready to wed. Also in love with Sunita is King Sohat, who murders Sunita’s father, planting “evidence” that it was Ranjit who committed the murder. Sohat gives Ranjit a wedding gift, a new set of dice, and the two get down to gambling. Naturally the dice are loaded, and soon Ranjit has not only lost his entire kingdom, but has now become Sohat’s slave. Still not welcoming his advances, Sohat has Ranjit whipped until Sunita reluctantly agrees to Sohat’s demands. But then, a child playing with the dice, learns their secret, and an army quickly amasses to rescue King Ranjit and Sunita. Sohat gets his comeuppance, and Sunita and Ranjit, well they kiss in a silhouetted sunset, of course.
A Throw of Dice works marvelously well because the entire cast is a delight to watch. All three leads balance their performances between out-and-out melodrama and a natural restraint, which works perfectly inside the fairy-tale-esque story. While perhaps a tad too restrained in his love scenes with Seeta Devi, Charu Roy nevertheless portrays the romance well, and really comes alive when the dastardly Sohat brings on the games of chance. For his part, Himansu Rai plays Sohat rather broadly, just short of curling his mustache (if he had one), but uses enough subtlety to make his performance a little more than caricature. His scenes with Devi actually have more heat than those that she shares with Roy, and that heat adds to the tension and helps Rai’s performance become that much more devilish. The ravishing Seeta Devi steals every scene she’s in; as she should. There’s no question as to why both Kings fall for her, and Devi has enough presence that even when she’s not on screen, Sunita remains a primary focus.
Director Franz Osten keeps the fairy-tale moving, has a penchant for push-ins and pull-backs that work to great effect, and certainly knows how to fill a frame (especially with elephants!). He also has the absolutely stunning Seeta Devi as his female lead. How could he miss? In a wonderful shot, Osten catches Devi’s Sunita primping to her reflection in a jug of water; a perfectly natural occurrence, absently captured. But while Osten gets wonderful performances from his entire cast, it is the scope of many of his establishing shots which linger. From the opening sequence, showcasing the various wildlife to be found in the Indian jungles, to the extraordinary sequence where the people in Ranjit’s kingdom ready for his wedding (including lots of shots of men sewing various garments and the face-painting of elephants!), Osten certainly sets up a specific time and place where his story unfolds. With what appears to be literally a cast of thousands, Osten captures the horseback riding soldiers and the plethora of foot soldiers, all marching on Sohat’s kingdom, leaving little question that Ranjit will be rescued. Osten falters, slightly, in the film’s climax, where Sohat scurries up a cliff only to fall (or does he jump?) to his death. While comeuppance is well-deserved, the sequence happens too quickly, and there’s not enough time to revel in his fate. But Osten quickly redeems himself with the film’s fade-out silhouette kiss, which is simply gorgeous.
A Throw of Dice is available on DVD from Kino Video. The print, restored by the British Film Institute is gorgeous, with rich detail, allowing one to see every painted spot on each elephant, and much better, the glow in Seeta Devi’s eyes. Beautiful. The score by Nitin Sawhney and performed by The London Symphony Orchestra is a mixed bag. The music itself is wonderful, but it rarely reflects what is happening on screen, and frequently draws attention to itself and away from the movie. Sawhney uses voice a few times, and each time, whether in song or whisper, one is taken completely out of the drama. Except for tabla, Sawhney purposely kept away from “stereo-typical” Indian music, which is a fair choice, I suppose, but if a film ever called for traditional Indian music it is A Throw of Dice. Many scenes feature instruments, some hanging on walls (they look like sitars), while in other scenes, musicians are seen actually playing. Too bad that the score never tried to reflect that. In another odd choice, Sawhney left the demise of Sohat play with a simple low-toned drone. Since director Osten didn’t play the climax up either, we are left almost puzzled as to what happened and why. The DVD includes a lengthy interview with Sawhney, who explains his thoughts and choices in some detail, and while they are all valid, the score simply doesn’t work, for me, as well as I’d hoped.
Kevin M. Wentink