A Throw of Dice (1929) A Silent Film Review

On the heels of their success with the epic romance, Shiraz, producer Himansu Rai and director Franz Osten followed up with another historical love story, this one carved out of the very cornerstone of Indian literature.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Daddy needs a new pair of shoes

As talkies began to take over the world of cinema, Indian producer Himansu Rai and German director Franz Osten continued their successful collaboration and created their third and last silent historical epic.

Bring on the grand sets and costumes!

The men had ambitions of international success and The Light of Asia and Shiraz had both dealt with famous topics that would be easily recognized by non-Indian audiences around the globe, the life of Buddha and the building of the Taj Mahal. A Throw of Dice dug a bit more deeply into Indian culture and screenwriter Niranjan Pal took inspiration from an incident in the Mahābhārata, a Sanskrit epic that consists of nearly two million words (in contrast, War and Peace has a mere 580,000). The incident involves a monarch who is tricked into gambling his kingdom and the personal freedom of himself and his family on a crooked game of dice. End result: war.

The Rai-Osten team seemed to have learned from Shiraz and they managed to build on its success while avoiding its greatest flaws: a weak plot and somewhat dull hero. The main character of A Throw of Dice is a young king named Ranjit (Charu Roy), who has a good heart but is addicted to gambling. His cousin, Sohan (Rai), is conspiring to murder him and take his kingdom. If a hunting accident was good enough for the second Norman king of England, it’s certainly good enough for Ranjit and before you can say “Sohan is a snake!” Ranjit finds himself shot with a poison arrow.

Ranjit down for the count.

Fortunately, for Sohan, the hunting party is near the home of his self-exiled ex-tutor, who loved Ranjit but could not abide his gambling habit. And, naturally, the tutor has a lovely daughter, Sunita (Seeta Devi). Sohan immediately falls in love with Sunita but she is repelled when he kind of confesses to the assault on Ranjit. Instead, she begins to have feelings for her patient.

Ranjit recovers and proposes but is rebuffed by Sunita’s father due to his gambling habit. Sohan seizes the opportunity, has Sunita’s father murdered and frames Ranjit. After all, he had both opportunity and motive. Thus begins a game of cat and mouse with Sohan constantly trying to do in the naïve Ranjit but always failing by a hair or thwarted by the young king’s allies. And we haven’t even gotten to his most nefarious scheme, a dice game with the kingdoms at stake and a set of loaded dice in play.

Discovering the crooked dice.

Like Shiraz, A Throw of Dice is a combination of Indian and European film sensibilities, up to and including some rather European kisses exchanged by the leads. The way a story with mystical elements and literal divine intervention is secularized feels quite a bit like those “real story behind the myth” pictures we still get every few years. However, the look of the film is distinct to its time and place of production with its natural light and the lavish use of settings and elephants borrowed from the local gentry.

This film is often compared to a DeMille epic but I think it lacks, frankly, the winking sleaze that found its way into most of his pictures. (That’s not an insult.) Instead, I think that A Throw of Dice closer resembles the epics made by Ernst Lubitsch and Michael Curtiz in Germany and Austria: big, bold and sexy. Crowdpleasers but lacking that certain delightful tackiness that was DeMille’s stock in trade.

The royal romance.

In general, the plot feels more cohesive than that of Shiraz, there are high stakes established immediately and if the good guys come off as more than a little clueless, well, that was/is par for the historical picture course. Ranjit’s gambling addiction is a compelling fatal flaw for the character and the filmmakers create exquisite suspense by leading the audience to wonder just when this weakness will prove to be disastrous. Likewise, Sunita’s naivete quickly proves dangerous to both her and the man she loves. Sohan is an unrepentant stinker but it’s always fun to have a villain to boo and hiss.

Himansu Rai clearly had a lot more fun playing the nefarious Sohan than he had as the saintly Shiraz and who can blame him? He happily gnaws at the scenery while Charu Roy ably handles the romance. Seeta Devi is as charismatic as ever in this picture, though I think I prefer her bad girl performance in Shiraz. Still, she looks stunning and she and Roy make a handsome couple.

Just a little something to get from here to there.

This film may seem self-indulgent in the way it shows off its settings, props and scenery but there is a narrative purpose behind it. By showing the giant yacht that Ranjit uses to cruise around the lake by his palace, we get a grasp of how massive his wealth is and why Sohan is so desperate to get his hands on it, especially when you compare the latter’s impressive but dusty mountain abode.

A Throw of Dice also establishes its peril quickly and efficiently. Sohan strikes from the shadows with assassins and poison and one of the more memorable scenes in the film involves him eliminating an extortionist by placing a live cobra in his bed. I surmise and hope that the snake used in the scene was devenomized but it’s still a striking thing to see it slithering over the performer. Herpetophobic readers can take this as a content warning.

Brrrr!

Rai and Osten had really hit their silent movie stride in just three films but, alas, the talkie revolution was in full swing internationally and sound films were what the public wanted. While both later found success in sound cinema (Rai founded the Bombay Talkies company), it’s a shame that they weren’t able to continue their work in silent cinema for just a little longer. The lyrical, dreamlike tone of silent cinema fits their lavish romances perfectly.

Sets, costumes, scenery, all a visual feast.

A Throw of Dice is an important example of an Indian co-production and international hit but in addition to its historical importance, it’s an exciting picture with plenty of forward movement and glorious visuals. If Shiraz was not quite your thing, you will likely find this to be an improvement.

Where can I see it?

A Throw of Dice was released on DVD by Kino. It has a lovely modern and cinematic score by Nitin Sawhney.

☙❦❧

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3 Comments

  1. R Michael Pyle

    I watched this last December and was blown away! It’s a magnificent piece of film-making! The musical accompaniment with the Kino release is superlative, too. A must for silent film afficianadoes.

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