Saturday, March 10, 2012

Franz Osten | A Throw of Dice

the gambler
by Douglas Messerli

Niranjan Pal (story), W. A. Burton (scenario), Max Jungk (German scenario), Franz Osten (director) Prapancha Pash (A Throw of Dice) / 1929

Based on an episode from the great Indian epic The Mahabharata, A Throw of Dice is one of the most significant successes of the of Indian producer-actor Himansu Rai's and writer Niranjan Pal's collaborations with the German director, Franz Osten. Rai, a wealthy and educated Bengali and Pal had desired to bring Indian stories to the screen, convinced that there would ultimately be a market in India, and in Franz Osten they found the perfect partner, a man desiring to direct international works who saw the lure of the exoticism of Indian culture for his German audience.

     Osten also turned to be an intelligent director, proving himself in early films such as Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) of 1925 and Shiraz of 1928, before he worked on A Throw of Dice. With the advent of talkies, Rai and Pal founded the Bombay Talkies, which helped create the Bollywood sensation of today, truly popularizing film in India. Osten continued to work with them after the silent era, but in 1939 he was arrested as a member of the Nazi Party, and was held until the end World War II.

     The British Film Institute's archives restored the film in 2006, adding music by British Indian composer, Nitin Sawhney.

     The film itself, as critics have noted, is a spectacular somewhat in the manner of Cecil DeMille films, employing 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses, and numerous elephants and tigers. Yet for all of its grand Aida-like scenes, the story itself is an intimate one, wherein two wealthy cousins King Sohat (Himansu Rai) and King Ranjit (Charu Roy), on a hunting party, both meet and fall in love with Ranjit's former teacher's daughter, Sunita (Seeta Devi). Her father had left the court because he wanted to keep his daughter safe from the evils of that world, in particular the handsome young Ranjit's addiction to gambling. But like all movie hermits, the world comes to them.

      Jealous of Ranjit and seeking his fortune, Sohat tries to murder Ranjit in the jungle, portraying it as a hunting accident. But Ranjit, surviving the arrow, is nursed to health in Sunita's house, bringing the two closer than they might otherwise have been, leading to a deep love. Although her father forbids their marriage, Sunita determines to run away with Ranjit, while Sohat plots to kill the father with Ranjit's dagger, making it look as if his cousin had committed the evil act.

     Until they hear of the father's death, the couple have a few joyous days on Ranjit's barge, but when she hears of the death, Sunita flees, presuming that Ranjit has killed her father to gain her hand.

     Sohat's men arrest her flight, bringing her to his palace; but despite her belief that Ranjit is guilty, she will not give in to Sohat's lavish gifts and pleas for her hand. Ranjit, disguised as a juggler, attends Sohat's dinner in order to convince Sunita of his innocence, ultimately winning her over once again. They plan for a lavish wedding, but Sohat, presenting his cousin with a gift of gambling board and dice, tempts Ranjit into a game where he eventually wins Ranjit's kingdom and makes him his slave.

    A slave cannot marry, and Sunita, observing Ranjit's beatings, gives in to Sohat's demands.

    One of Ranjit's men, however, discovers through his young son, that Sohat has used trick dice in the game, and, revealing this to Ranjit, allows him to lead his forces against Sohat, who commits suicide. The loving couple is reunited once more.

     Although it is no more complex than a simple US Western, the film's locale in Rajasthan, with its scenes of royal life, beautifully lit by Osten, seem so realistic that the viewer does feel finally he has entered an exotic world out of the past. Particularly in the palace scenes, where the characters are dressed in lovely costumes, their faces decorated for the marriage, Osten's film projects a rich texture that is superior to most silent films of the day. And Charu Roy—a groom more handsome than his wife is beautiful—enchants the eyes.

Los Angeles, March 9, 2012

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