It’s safe to say, I knew next to nothing about the Indian film industry – either the Bollywood of today or the beginnings of Indian cinema back in the 1920s – before watching A Throw of Dice. On reading deeper into the history of the film and the studio that produced it, there’s a new world of undiscovered opportunities for me to enjoy. Perhaps that’s some comfort as the film itself is something of a slog – historically interesting but not filmmaking at its finest.
A Throw of Dice follows a traditional Indian tale of two rival Kings, battling for land and the love of a woman they meet on their travels. Being rather unsporting, one King Sohan attempts to assassinate the other by an arrow, wounding him enough that he seeks help in a nearby hermit’s dwelling. Cared for by the old man’s beautiful daughter Sunita, the inured King Ranjit falls in love and vows to marry his nurse.
Sunita is a celebrated catch as his rival instantly feels the same way and attempts to sabotage their relationship by framing King Ranjit for the murder of her father. The daughter needs no evidence to condemn King Ranjit of the crime, ending their wedding. After he’s forgiven and on the day before their wedding King Sohan challenges King Ranjit to a game for his kingdom, which King Sohan wins by cheating and makes his rival into a slave forbidden to marry Sunita.
If you didn’t follow that, don’t worry too much. It’s essentially two men battling each other for a woman, neither acting like adults and her not seeming to mind their failings.
The film suffers from an unusual wordiness for a silent movie, favouring lengthy scenes of dialogue that we begin to lose track of. It doesn’t matter too much as the plot plays out regardless and despite the complexity never really excites or thrills. The languid direction and endless talking fail to build the tension that should have tightened as the two Kings schemed and fought.
It does, however, somewhat make up for leaden pacing with the sheer ambition of the production. Scenes are filled with extras and action, seemingly thousands on location plus herds of elephants and tigers. The film is visually sumptuous – when it’s not set during a dialogue scene.
The director, German Franz Osten, gained some notoriety after being arrested in 1939 for his membership of the Nazi party. He spent the Second World War behind bars and did not direct again. His Hindi trilogy of The Light of Asia, Shiraz and A Throw of Dice are considered some of the most influential works in early Indian cinema.
Out of the estimated 1,300 Indian films of the period, only a handful survive today, so it’s a minor miracle we can watch A Throw of Dice at all. While it’s not as polished as a piece of entertainment, it does serve to show that talent, grandeur and filmmaking passion have never belonged to Hollywood alone.