A Throw of Dice
”A Throw of Dice” is another newcomer to the list courtesy of the 10th edition currently in circulation. Its claim to fame as I understand it is as an early film taking place in India and, I should add, a decent entry both on content and technique.
Please note that I did not call it an Indian film. This film is as Indian as “Slumdog Millionaire” and there are more than a few comparisons between those two films. Both are essentially western (European) films taking place in India. That means that sensibilities and the flow of the films are familiar to a western viewer, who will in both cases recognize the fairy tale elements and tourist like flavor of India coupled with a stark realism with western cause-effect plot line. This is in stark contrast to the Indian film tradition (Bollywood), which more often than not is confusing to the western viewer with singing and dancing, divine intervention and a formulaic recipe not entirely logical. Needless to say that I am not entirely at home with Bollywood films.
“A Throw of Dice” was made by German director, Franz Osten in collaboration with the Indian actor and filmmaker Himansu Rai as part of a cycle of Indo-German films. The cast is entirely Indian and features Himansu Rai himself as the evil king Sohan. He is also by far the most interesting of the characters and Rai is perfectly diabolical as the envious king who must possess the woman of royal colleague Ranjit (Charu Roy).
The story is classic fairy tale fair and the Indian setting only emphasize this. King A (Ranjit) and B (Sohan) are fast friends with a common interest in gambling who on a hunting expedition meet the fair maid C (Sunita, played by Seeta Devi). King A seduces Maid C to the chagrin of King B who plots to kill King A. The plot fails and instead King B tries to frame King A on the murder on Maid C’s father. When that fails as well King B sets out bring down King A and take Maid C through foul play (literally).
All this is not exceptional, we can pretty much predict every step of the way and that was likely the case as well in 1929. What is exceptional is the production value. This is a beautiful film in every sense. The costumes are sparkling, the palaces are the stuff of fairy tales and the picture is knife sharp with a lot of credit to the restoration process. I have come to really respect the people at the BFI. They know their craft and give the films adequate attention. But of course Franz Osten is the real architect. He was a true son of the German impressionistic school and although the film is more melodramatic than most German productions of the age he orchestrates the story perfectly well and gets max out of his actors. Charu Roy as Sunita could walk right into a European or American production of the age and not look out of place. She does spend a significant part of the film looking depressed, but when she smiles she is radiant and the skimpy top she wears is hot! She is a worthy price of the two kings.
Another stroke of genius on behalf of the BFI was to get Nitin Sawhney to compose a score for the 2006 restoration. That soundtrack is just ridiculously good and fitting. It is not a Bollywood soundtrack, though there are plenty of Indian elements, nor is it a classic silent film score though the continuous soundscape supports the melodrama perfectly. Neither is it a new age flip, but rather a composition most pleasing to a modern listener which combines all these elements. The DVD from BFI includes an excellent interview with Sawhney where he explains his methods and choices and you cannot but admire the man. A lot of thinking went into this and the result is extraordinary. I would go so far as to say that the movie is a nice dreamscape to accompany the music rather than the other way round.
Not all however is well and good. I did have an issue with the entire gambling theme. No, I really do not mind that people are playing games nor does it bother me that some money is involved. However these two kings are obsessed with gambling. Ludomania is the right word (it even looks like Ludo). When Ranjit stakes his entire kingdom on a game of dice that tells me that this king is unfit to rule. As a subject I would be most displeased to find that I was the prize of a game to be thrown away. That is not proper management, but tells me that this king does not really care for his job and responsibility. When it is revealed that the game was rigged and Ranjit was cheated the entire city rally to save him as if they have entirely forgotten the he just staked them on a game of dice. That is a cause for revolt, not support. “Yeah, let us get our irresponsible leader back!”
Ah, but this is just a fairy tale so I guess I can live with that. At least I can root for Sunita and the sweet boy in Ranjit’s household and I suppose Ranjit learned his lesson. I might buy the soundtrack.