I have to start out this review by thanking dustedoff and Laura for bringing this film to my attention. It never occurred to me that anything from the silent era in India might be available on DVD, let alone so beautifully restored with English intertitles! A gorgeous soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney which complements the visuals perfectly has also been added. Many of these older films are worth watching mostly for their historical value, but this—this is a treasure and a treat, all at once. It’s also short, clocking in at 74 minutes.
It’s the third film from the collaboration between Himansu Rai and German director Franz Osten, which had already produced Light of Asia and Shiraz. Osten was working with his brother Peter Ostermayr’s production company Emelka in Germany when he met Himansu and Devika Rani, and came to India to work with them on these joint efforts. This partnership also gave us 1936’s Achhut Kanya starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani; but when World War II broke out Osten and the other German technicians were arrested by the British and then deported, and Himansu Rai died in 1940.
A Throw of Dice features 10,000 extras, a thousand horses and fifty elephants (loaned by a local maharajah), and is gorgeously filmed on lush sets and beautiful outdoor locations in Rajasthan; an added bonus for me was recognizing places I have been! Himansu himself plays the villain in this, with Seeta Devi and Charu Roy in the other two lead roles. It’s an entertaining and fast-paced story of intrigue, treachery and romance against a Mughal court backdrop penned by Niranjan Pal (based on a story from the Mahabharata). And I can’t wait to share screen caps so let’s get right to it, shall we?
King Sohan (Himansu Rai) and King Ranjit (Charu Roy) are cousins and the rulers over neighboring kingdoms. They enjoy such pastimes together as hunting and gambling, and we meet them one fine day as they roll along with their elephants and bearers looking for tigers to kill.
The noise and commotion generated by the activity of the hunt attracts the attention of a sage named Kanwa (Sarada Gupta) and his beautiful daughter Sunita (Seeta Devi). Kanwa used to teach Ranjit at court, but left because he disapproved of his penchant for throwing dice, and he tells Sunita to beware.
Luckily for tigers and tiger-lovers like me, the two Kings are more interested in their games of chance and they sit down to gamble while their men look around the jungle.
Ranjit is blissfully unaware that his cousin Sohan is plotting his death in order to take over his kingdom. Sohan has enlisted the help of his man Kirkabar to shoot Ranjit “accidentally” with a poisoned arrow on the hunt. Kirkabar does so, and Ranjit is badly injured—but one of Ranjit’s men knows that Kanwa lives nearby, and Kanwa is an accomplished healer. Ranjit is taken to Kanwa’s hut, and Sohan falls in love with Sunita at first sight.
She is much less impressed; in fact, as the days pass and she helps her father nurse Ranjit back to health, she falls in love with him as he does with her. Back at his palace, Sohan is infuriated to learn that Ranjit is recovering, and he is also obsessed with Sunita to the point where he doesn’t even enjoy his dancing girls any more. (Although in all fairness, this one is as sluggish and disinterested as a dancer in a seedy Bombay bar.)
Sunita also sends back the expensive jewelry that Sohan has sent to her. This is the last straw; Sohan sends for Kirkabar and they set off for Kanwa’s home immediately.
There, Ranjit’s wooing of Sunita is progressing rapidly, to the dismay of her father.
Yes—a kiss! And a pretty passionate one at that. There is great chemistry between Sunita and Ranjit, I have to say. Kanwa tells Ranjit that he cannot marry Sunita because his gambling will make her life miserable, and asks him to leave.
Sohan arrives at this juncture and feigns relief that Ranjit is well again.
Charu Roy reminds me here and there of both Arbaaz Khan and Arjun Rampal, depending on camera angles; Himansu himself has a bit of Jon Lovitz about him, except handsomer. However, I digress. Later, while Kanwa entertains Sohan, Sunita agrees to elope with Ranjit and they seal their agreemeent with another kiss.
(Okay now I feel like the Mumbai Mirror or Mid-day counting onscreen kisses to write about the next day: “Seeta Devi Kisses Charu Not Once, But Twice!” or “Charu Roy: The Kissing King!”). Kirkabar overhears them planning their escape and carries the information to his master. Sohan instructs Kirkabar to steal Ranjit’s amulet necklace and his dagger, and he does. That evening as Kanwa gathers herbs, Sunita and Ranjit sneak off to a waiting camel and elope, while Kirkabar kills Kanwa with Ranjit’s dagger and leaves the knife and the amulet under Kanwa’s body.
Having sent a messenger ahead, Ranjit and his bride-to-be arrive home to a warm welcome.
For seven days and seven nights Ranjit and Sunita are happy. Scenes taking place in Ranjit’s kingdom were all or mostly shot in Udaipur, and Osten and his cameraman took full advantage of that city’s great beauty.
Alas, on the eighth day a messenger from Sohan arrives with news of Kanwa’s death, and we are treated to possibly one of the first “Nahiiiiiiiin!” faces ever captured on celluloid: the beginning of a grand tradition!
The messenger shows Sunita the amulet and dagger found with her father’s body and she recognizes them instantly as Ranjit’s. Another tradition (although in my opinion not so grand) begins when Sunita instantly judges Ranjit to be guilty, and leaves with the messenger to go home after writing Ranjit a note. Ranjit immediately sends one of his trusted ministers after her to plead his innocence.
Sunita’s escorts take her to Sohan’s palace, and Sohan greets her by telling her that he was worried that Ranjit would try to kill Sunita as well and he will protect her. Her arrival prompts Kirkabar to ask for the reward Sohan had promised him: a portion of the kingdom. When Sohan laughs in Kirkabar’s face, Kirkabar threatens to tell Ranjit everything; I guess he has learned nothing about Sohan’s temperament.
Predictably, he has Kirkabar killed just as Ranjit’s minister arrives on the scene. Kirkabar’s dying words are that he killed Kanwa, but he expires before he can implicate Sohan as well.
Sunita returns happily to her betrothed, asks for and is granted forgiveness, and the wedding plans commence. There is a fabulous montage detailing the preparations for the wedding: miniature painting, flower stringing, embroidery, elephant decorating.
But Sohan, whose treachery is still unsuspected by Ranjit, is invited to the wedding—and he knows Ranjit’s biggest weakness: the dice.
Can he still ruin everything? Will Sunita and Ranjit find happiness together, or will Sohan’s evil plotting succeed? Watch A Throw of Dice to find out, and also for the gorgeous cinematography, the beautiful sets, costumes and scenery, Nitin Sawhney’s sublime soundtrack, and to enjoy a slice of history that doesn’t come around every day. I got my DVD from Kino, but if you live outside the US you can go to the film’s site for more information on finding it.
Here are more random goodies:
A little tiny deerlet! It looked so sweet and curious sniffing around.
Great Mughal court scenes, complete with giant feathery fans:
Art Deco-meets-Mughal finery (oh! how I drooled at all the costumes! even Sunita’s simple cotton bandhani odhni!):
And also, her jewels:
The landscapes of Rajasthan: the lakes, the desert, the forts.
And what joy to finally see the legendary Himansu Rai onscreen!
It’s ALL GOOD.