Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The design of chance… A Throw of Dice (1929), Regents Street Cinema

This was my first visit to the recently-refurbished “birthplace of British cinema” (the Lumier Brothers projected here in 1896…eighteen-ninety-six!) and I can report that not only is the venue drenched in Victorian architectural atmospherics but the seats are really most comfortable… This suggests that one of the most important aspects of film watching may have been gotten right from the get go and anyone who has watched Spectre from a cheaply cushioned multiplex would know how wrong things have gone.

The Regent Street seats were suitably luxuriant for one of the most opulent films of the silent era: Prapancha Pash (A Throw of Dice) which was playing as part of the cinema’s Indian Season which links to the V&A’s Fabric of India exhibition.

The film was directed by Franz Osten as part of an unique cultural collaboration between India and Germany initiated by British-educated Indian solicitor Himansu Rai, who came to Europe in search of partners for a series of films on world religions. A Throw of Dice was the third in the series in which German crew worked with Indian performers and, as importantly, funding.

The story was based on a story by Niranjan Pal with adapted an episode from the Indian epic The Mahabharata. It is very much a fantasy involving kings battling for the love of a beautiful princess and their kingdoms: there’s a cast of thousands, gorgeous clothing and scenery, snakes, elephants and a lot of cheaters…

The kings tumble the dice
The two kings are Sohan (Himansu Rai) and Ranjit (Charu Roy) – the former quicksilver slick with a fleshy smile betrayed by his eyes and the later slim and dashing with an unguarded expressiveness that marks him out as a potential patsy when the cheat tries to prosper.

Sohan has invited Ranjit out hunting and instructs his shifty henchman Kirkbar (Modhu Bose) to shoot his regal pal in the back in the confusion of a tiger hunt. Things look bleak for the pierced prince but his aide (Lala Bijoykishen) knows of a healer nearby who might just be able to save Ranjit’s life.

Seeta Devi
The healer is a hermit (Sarada Gupta) who has left the devious ways of mainstream society to bring up his beautiful daughter Sunita (Seeta Devi) in peaceful honesty. The royal party arrives and the King recuperates…

Sohan’s plans are made a mess but he’s nothing if not resourceful and, indeed, observant, as he takes an instant liking to Sunita. Class will out though and Ranjit falls for the woman who nursed him to health and she likewise reciprocates recognising a good guy when she heals one. 

Himansu Rai, Sarada Gupta and Charu Roy
The two skip off to Ranjit’s palace leaving her father to carry on with his solitude but Sohan has other ideas and despatches Kirkbar is stab him with Ranjit’s stolen knife and thereby put him in the frame.

Clearly the couple’s relationship is going to be put through some testing times… but the whole enterprise is so well made: the pacing is sharp and Emil Schünemann’s cinematography is top class whether in catching the extraordinary light and landscape or the close interaction between the characters.

Ranjit’s palace
The two kings have already shown their weakness for what the modern American might call “craps” and so it is, as the story winds up that they play for their kingdoms, their freedom and the woman! One of them plays with loaded dice… can you guess which one?

Will Love conquer dishonesty and will there be a huge set piece ending involving thousands of extras, a big battle and a thrilling chase? You bet there is!

A Throw of Dice is a lovely film to watch not just for the fabrics which, even in monotone, are amazing but also because of a light and very sure touch throughout. The leads are all terrific with Himansu Rai clearly delighting in every devious ploy – he doesn’t over-play though and overall the acting is naturally knowing.

Kings quarrel
Seeta Devi is similarly nuanced and has one of those timeless faces that would look good in any film from any period: a neo-Bollywood Brooks no less! It’s a massive over-statement but you do get the feeling that cinema was going to suit India just fine – fitting in with a style of storytelling and a hugely rich cultural heritage that simply couldn’t be equalled by imports.

Seeta Devi hiding
The film was accompanied by Nitin Sawhney’s orchestrated score written for the 2006 restoration. It has some lovely themes but is sometimes a little over-bearing with some out of place vocalising which I always find a little odd for films without dialogue: no words are needed. That said, sat in this wonderful hall, this cosy comfort… I was transported far away from London’s crushing umbra to palaces of pure sparkle.

The film is readily available on BFI DVD either direct or from Movie Mail.


  1. I have owned the DVD for about a year and still not watched it! This lovely review is a good reminder for me to fix that. Thanks :)

    1. It's good fun and so well made - I'd like to watch Franz Osten's two earlier Indian films now.

      Thanks for reading!