A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash) (1929)


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!



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52 Comments to “A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash) (1929)”

  1. Meri Jaan,
    great that you watched this one: great movie!
    But, this is definetly not an Indian movie, I don´t want to count it a German one but western. Sorry, do disapoint you!
    I´ve seen it, I loved it, no doubt, but I´ve seen lot´s of old movies (one of them Light of Asia etc) and Indian movies of those days to say, it has too much the touch of the ruling party, with all the thousends of people to be present on the set.
    And that kissing didn´t even happen between the Shah n Shah and Mumtaz in “Taj Mahal” just a few years later. That is typically ferengi!
    Anyway a most enjoyable review
    And I like Nitin Sawhney for other things

    • I don’t think I said anywhere that it’s a purely Indian movie, but it’s a wonderful classic from a period in India where movies were being made in cooperation with westerners bringing their technology (and of course some cultural influences) to India. I don’t feel the need to label it as Indian or not Indian; surely it can be a blend of both without losing anything that makes it special.

      There is plenty about it that IS Indian—the entire cast, for one thing, and the settings and the story (apparently from the Mahabharata). And Himansu Rai’s place in Hindi cinema can’t be argued with: he founded Bombay Talkies, one of the first film studios in India which spawned many great film careers and movies (and other studios). Plus Franz Osten continued to direct movies made in the Hindi language even though he didn’t speak it, until he was arrested for his Nazi sympathies in 1939.

      The restoration was done by the British Film Institute, and bless them for it. It’s just a wonderful piece of history :-)

  2. wow..what a great find….and historic movie as well…. classic… thanks

    • Thanks to Madhu at dustedoff and Laura at MovieDiva :-) My 80-year-old parents watched it with me, and they loved it too. They want to see Lagaan again tonight as a result :-)

      • You’re welcome! Now it’s high time I ordered my DVD… this sounds like something I’d really like to watch. And the print’s good too.

        Re: all those kisses – Lalita Pawar, according to various sources, did a fairly sizzling kissing scene in Pati Bhakti (1922). I haven’t seen the film, but La Pawar does look pretty sirenish in this somewhat hazy still from Himmat-e-Marda:

        Now I need to start building up a collection of silent Indian films!

        • That’s Lalita???!!! I am dying to see her in her 30s avatar now. I always thought she was beautiful anyway, even as an old cranky lady, but gotta see her actually v.v. young!

  3. Wow! I am floored! Seeta Devi is SO beautiful! And kissing on screen? In 1929? Thanks much for this wonderful wonderful review!

  4. This may not be a Bollywood film, but it is certainly one of the first “international co-productions” involving the Indian subcontinent (in this case; Germany, UK and the British Raj). I’m curious to know how some of the scenes would look like in colour, but it still looks awesome in black & white. Maybe someone could colourise a few of the screencaps?

    OT: Were you able to connect to the BollyWHAT? forums lately?

    • No not Bollywood (I don’t really consider any cinema before the 70s as Bollywood anyway). I am always itching to see beautiful sets, costumes etc. in color—but the black and white photography in this is so rich and full of depth that I didn’t really miss color. I can’t capture how detailed and almost three dimensional this looks onscreen. There’s a trailer over at Kino.com which you should watch to see what I mean :)

      I haven’t tried to connect to the BW forums lately—are they down, maybe?

      • I don’t know what’s going on with BollyWHAT?, but I haven’t been able to connect since the weekend. I want to be certain that there isn’t a fault with my computer, so do log on to the forums and let me know if you’re able to connect.

  5. I’d heard of this film from a write-up on one of the blogs (Filmiholic’s blog, perhaps) and even seen the DVD on sale somewhere, but wasnt sure if I wanted to see it as I am not too keen on silent films. Your write-up has me curious, now. Did NOT realise that Himanshu Rai was in it himself. That would have spiked my curiosity! All the Bollywood history books I’ve read so far have had so much to say about him (and Devika Rani), but no pictures. I am so glad you included screencaps with him – its great to see what he looks like, finally! :-)

    • I’d never seen him either, only Devika Rani. It’s too bad he died so young, wonder what else he might have come up with! I think you’d like this, it’s not long and it’s so beautiful.

  6. PS: Looks like Indian actresses of that era followed the Hollywood fashion of shaving off their eyebrows and drawing on penciled eyebrows, instead!

  7. WOW!! This is fantastic. I’m keenly waiting to see how early you will be able to get with reviews :-)
    Unfortunately, I read somewhere, the first talkie ‘alam ara’ 1931 was lost in a fire at Pune’s National Film Archives five years ago.

    I’m curious. Why would you consider films after 1970 as Bollywood and not the ones before that :-)

    • I’m always on a quest for historic things :-) I have heard that Alam Ara is lost for all time too…and probably way too many other films from the era too.

      Re: Bollywood—I think of it as OTT masala a la Manmohan Desai and his ilk (was there any such thing as his ilk though really?)…to be honest, I don’t use Bollywood as a term very often, because so many people dislike it and although I don’t mind it as a “brand” so to speak, I don’t think it encompasses the entire history and variety inherent in Hindi cinema.

  8. From the very beginning, cinema was a global medium, with actors, directors and technicians migrating from one country to another to share expertise and aesthetics. German cinema in the 1920s was so accomplished (and experimental) that it was especially influential. And writers, directors and actors have always watched films from all over the world, absorbing, adapting and yes, purloining this and that from here, there and everywhere. No film, except perhaps at the very beginning in the 1890s, has ever been the product of one country, alone.

    A Throw of Dice is fascinating not just as the only restored silent film from India readily available on DVD, but because of the melding of 1920s Art Deco and German Expressionism with Indian actors, settings and story. I love the 1920s make up and hairstyles surrounded by Mugal architecture and fifty elephants, just as I love swinging 60s London as interpreted by Shammi Kapoor.

    As far as silent films and Hindi cinema, I’ve always thought they had a lot in common. The screen-filling close ups, the intense emotion and the importance of music (since silent films were never presented without live music of some kind) demand a degree of collaboration between audience and the faces on the screen that I find irresistable.

  9. Quite Amazing MS,
    I confess i havent seen any hindi silent movies… but from the story-line, it must have been pretty hard to explain such an intricate story line with no sounds (anndddd.. no songs :) :) )

    The screen shots of Sunita are amazing, and so are the Mughal backgrounds… if you havent, you must visit Rajasthan when you are in India the next time.

    Super find!

    • It wasn’t that intricate a storyline—but everything was very clear from the action onscreen and the occasional intertitle :) I love Rajasthan, it was the first place I visited in India, and I’ve been back since then.

  10. Those screencaps are simply GORGEOUS! Such clarity and richness of detail. Sigh. This is getting added to my Netflix queue NOW. Thanks Memsaab, dustedoff and Laura for bringing this gem to our notice.

    As for kissing, I think pre-Independence, Hindi movies were more open-minded on that front. I remember seeing a clip from some 30s movie, of a young, sultry Lalita Pawar locked in a passionate kiss.

  11. I do hope it does not have a sad ending. The heroine looks so lovely ! Did you notice her lovely pose as she comes out of the hut in the start?

    • No worries on the ending score :-) Yes, I did screen cap that but couldn’t find room for it…I could have screencapped every frame and put it here if it weren’t so tedious!

  12. A movie of 1929 ! And that too in such glorious splendour ! Awesome. I am a bit pressed for time at the moment, but I will add more in a couple of hours from now.

  13. It is so humbling to realise that movies of the silent era could have such outstanding production values, despite the technological limitations of that time.

    The grandeur of the sets, and the scale of production ( ten thousands of people,1000 horses, 50 elephants- mind boggling.

    And the lady looks so attractive.

    and now kissing scenes are regarded against the native culture and all reeks of misguided hypocrisy.

    The screen caps are just awesome. Those days, watching moving pictures was all people needed to watch. The fact that this movie offered much much more is definitely a big plus.

    What a great find. I thank all the people who made this post possible- viz Greta ( of course) , dustedoff, Laura

  14. The screencaps are just SO gorgeous. Thanks for sharing.

  15. The movie looks so well made!
    And the pictures are still so clear!
    Thanks to laura, dustedoff and memsaab for the wonderful discovery! Thanks for the review memsaab, well done!

    “Himansu himself has a bit of Jon Lovitz about him”
    Agree totally! But doesn’t he resemble Ranjeet as well?

    Seeta devi looks spellboundingly beautiful!
    Wonder if it is her real name!
    Wonder what happened to all the actors?

  16. IWhat a great write-up Greta! I own the DVD, but have yet to watch it…perhaps this weekend I will rectify that!

  17. Harvey & Mike: It’s a beautiful film, do watch it. Seeta Devi was quite popular in her day, and she was alive until 1983 I think, although I don’t know anything else about her. There are some gorgeous photos of her on wikipedia. Charu Roy was also a director and I read somewhere that he also painted, and that he designed the costumes for Shiraz or Light of Asia (I forget which)…

  18. Seeta Devi’s actual name was Renee Smith I believe.


  19. Thanks for this review. The screen caps are really beautiful and interesting. What a find. I can only imagine what it would have been like to be on the sets for this film! I will have to get the DVD. Thanks again for bringing this movie out of the archives!

  20. Wow. She is heartstoppingly beautiful. At the risk of being judged a sexist, a beautiful woman makes any era as attractive as the modern era. :)

  21. And we talking of a era mind you were people were dying of now “trivial” duseases like TB, malaria, etc. :)

    • She is very pretty. Really hope to see some of her other films too :-) And yes, my mother wasn’t even born yet when this was made (although my father was)…

  22. My second thought was Moraji Desai would have thought of her. To my delight.


    Later, he left the service of the British in 1924 and joined the civil disobedience movement against British rule in India in 1930.

    As Home Minister, Desai outlawed any portrayals of indecency (which included “kissing” scenes) in films and theatrical productions

    and My generation, for better or for worse is fated to remember Moraji Desai as a crank extra-ordinaire. :)

  23. So Seeta Devi was an Anglo Indian called Renee Smith ! Anglo Indian women are extremely pretty (best of both the worlds and all that) , and Seeta Devi is a very fine example of that.

  24. Anglo Indian women are extremely pretty (best of both the worlds and all that)

    Looking at my aunts and cousins, I’m not sure I agree. No argument about Seeta Devi though. I am not sure whether I want to see this though, since it is the music I love most about the older Hindi films I watch.

  25. LOL!!!! I just told my parents about your comments Atul and stuartnz, and they are laughing too.

    Your poor aunts and cousins :) The music for this is modern and very westernized, but it fits the film well. You can hear it at amazon.com (and download it if you like it).

  26. I was really elated to see this. It has aroused my curiosity to visit the silent era of films.

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