Tuesday 21 September 2010

A Throw of Dice (1929)

Director: Franz Osten
Stars: Seeta Devi, Charu Roy and Himansu Rai

Another exotic silent film ignored for decades until its recent restoration and release, A Throw of Dice plays well as a double bill with Legong: Dance of the Virgins and as the second half too. The restoration this time was by the British Film Institute, in honour of the 60th anniversary of India's independence from the British Empire, with an enjoyable new soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney. In some ways the two films are a world apart: the one in late two strip Technicolor, the other in the more expected black and white; the one a simple tale of four players, the other a lavish epic that bears comparison with a Cecil B De Mille production. Yet there's much in common too. Both films were set in the Orient, distant exotic lands in those days, and shot in the countries in which they were set, using native casts. Both were shot primarily using locations rather than sets, so there's plenty of outdoor footage, and both are archetypal love triangles dressed up in poetic clothing.

Having watched Legong: Dance of the Virgins immediately before this film, I missed the two strip Technicolor acutely. A Throw of Dice would have benefitted hugely from a similar use of colour in a black and white age, and I say that as someone with a fondness for black and white. The acting is far better here, these being native actors not simply natives. The story is far more defined and explored, not to mention vastly expanded, courtesy of lavish assistance from the royal houses of Jaipur, Udaipur and Mysore. According to IMDb, the production used 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses and 50 elephants, but there's much more than that. The costumes are truly magnificent, with the boats, palaces and musical instruments not far behind. The extras include fire swallowers, snake charmers and acrobats. The camerawork is capable and the composition good, though not quite up to W Howard Greene's superlative work in Legong, though German direction keeps it solid.

Yes, German direction. While this is Indian through and through, it was directed by a German, Franz Osten by name. Osten arrived in Indian film in 1925 with the first in a thematic trilogy of films that concluded with this one and the names on screen remain remarkably consistent. That first feature was The Light of Asia, a story about the origin of the Buddha, starring Himansu Rai who also co-directed. Playing the Buddha's wife, Gopa, was the luminous Anglo-Indian, Seeta Devi, who was making her film debut. Following The Light of Asia was Shiraz, based around the construction of the Taj Mahal, and starring Devi, Rai and, as Emperor Shah Jehan, Charu Roy. A Throw of Dice reunites all three of these actors in an adaptation of a tale from The Mahabharata. Bizarrely, all three were directed by a German (Osten), written by an Indian (Niranjan Pal) and adapted by Englishmen (Edwin Arnold and William A Burton).

We meet Seeta Devi first here, as a lovely young lady called Sunita. She lives in seclusion in the Indian jungle with Kanwa, her father, who used to be the teacher to King Ranjit but who left his court because the king had become addicted to gambling. Unfortunately the quiet jungle he left for is soon shaken by the arrival of a royal hunting party, Ranjit's of course, a long procession of elephants in search of tiger. As this was actually shot in the Indian jungle, the tigers, snakes and monkeys are all real and running around in the wild instead of on carefully designed sets. Kanwa would obviously rather have wild animals around his daughter than gamblers, but his worst fears are about to come true when this gambling fool falls foul of King Sohat's dastardly schemes and is brought to him to nurse back to health. Of course, once in Kanwa's home, Ranjit catches sight of Sunita and they fall instantly in love with each other, setting the story in motion.

King Ranjit is still a inveterate gambler, not just because he aims to bag a tiger with a bow and arrow but because he keeps breaking off the hunt to roll dice with King Sohat who is as much of a gambler as him. The biggest gamble of all is to even be around Sohat, as Ranjit is perhaps only misguided but Sohat is an evil schemer who plans to bring Ranjit down. I'm not sure if the two are related, or whether the repeated phrase 'royal cousin' is meant to be taken only as a use of royal vernacular, but Ranjit seems to trust Sohat a little more than would be wise for a monarch. And so it all goes down. Sohat's henchman Kirkabar shoots Ranjit rather than a tiger and off he's whisked to Kanwa's care. By the time Ranjit regains consciousness and discovers Sunita, Sohat has already fallen in love with her too, though initially he doesn't believe he has competition that will live. Unlike the simplistic Legong, the equivalent story here is full of intrigue and betrayal.

It's a wonderful film that began for me as a lesser companion to Legong, because of the lack of Technicolor and some camerawork that looks worse for comparison to Greene's work in the later picture. However it soon sucked me into its machinations and I became as hooked on the story as King Ranjit is on his dice games. Seeta Devi is magnificent, ably filling the shoes of a hermit's daughter who two kings fall in love with. Usually actresses thrown into roles like that are merely the first point of failure as they can't make us believe it in the slightest, but Devi is magnetic and she could make us believe anything. Charu Roy is thoroughly believable too, transforming in her presence as the lovestruck King Ranjit. It's easy to believe that he'd do anything for her not just to get her. Wicked King Sohat is far from that sincere and Himansu Rai superbly shows lust not just for the woman but for power. He wants her but plenty more too, like Ranjit's kingdom.

It helps no end to have three talented actors plying their craft, though there are other factors that help almost as much. They're all Indian actors, or at least of obvious Indian heritage as Devi was born Renee Smith, and this initially seems as out of place in a late silent movie as seeing all the black actors in a Oscar Micheaux picture or Lingyu Ruan in a Chinese film. It often seems like most early ethnic pictures are American movies that either cast westerners playing outside their race or natives who can't act. Each discovery that this is far from the whole picture is a treat and I can only hope that I have many more similar discoveries to come. It's also often notable that these actors, perhaps because sound didn't arrive quite so soon in other parts of the world, act more like we might expect a sound actor to act, with less in the way of histrionic exaggerations and more in the way of realism. Again that's initially jarring but still very welcome.

Beyond having talented ethnic actors playing ethnic parts, shooting in India aids the authenticity to no small degree. While Cecil B De Mille had to build his huge temples and palaces on the back lots of Hollywood studios, Franz Osten had the good fortune to be able to shoot his film in real temples and palaces, not to mention jungles. The assistance of three royal houses is not to be sniffed at and it helps to make this feel like a multi-million dollar epic, though I have no idea how much budget they had to play with. Himansu Rai, not just one of the stars but also the producer of this film, came from an affluent Bengali family with a private theatre in their mansion, and he would go on to found Bombay Talkies, a notable early Indian film studio. I presume he had lots of connections and made good use of them for locations, extras and props. Many shots show Indian artisans at their crafts: stringing jewels, fashioning clothes and turbans or decorating elephants.

Perhaps most authentic of all, there's a notably shocking scene when one villain asks King Sohat for the reward he's been promised for all his murderous treachery, namely one of the provinces in his kingdom. Sohat's response, as you might expect for a wicked king who thrives on intrigue, is to have a cobra slipped into his bed. This is a remarkable scene, obviously conducted by a real man and a real cobra, though I'm sure it had to have been doctored in some way. While the man sleeps, the cobra crawls over his face and we can't help but tense up at what might be about to happen. While this movie is certainly based around a love triangle, it's far more than that, as befits its source in one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. It's a romantic thriller, full of as much suspense as romance, as much guidance as treachery, as much violence as love. If its two thematic companions are remotely as good as this, they're going to be treats to cherish.

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