India’s film industry, often referred to as Bollywood, has been a major player in world cinema since 1947 when it exponentially increased movie production with influential directors such as Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan at the helm, creating a national cinema that came to define the Bollywood archetype. But the silent era was a different story. More than eighty percent of the movies being screened in India at that time were imported from the U.S. and other countries. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s that a domestic industry really began to take shape.
A major turning point occurred in 1924 when lawyer-turner-actor Himansu Rai and playwright Niranjan Pal formed a partnership with Franz Osten to produce a film in India with financial backing from the Munich-based Emelka Film Company where Osten was a director. The collaboration was timely because Europeans, particularly in Germany, had become fascinated by Eastern religions and philosophy. German movie audiences had already been tempted by Paul Wegener’s Der Yoghi (The Yogi, 1921) and Joe May’s two-part epic Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb, 1921), written for the screen by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou from Harbou’s own orientalist novel about the building of the Taj Mahal.
A distinct approach, however, was being offered by the Rai-Pal-Osten collaboration. Not only would their film be shot on real locations in India but it would feature an all-Indian cast and focus on Indian religious and mythological subjects. Osten would direct and his German crew would provide the technical assistance. The Light of India (1925), based on Erwin Arnold’s poem on the life of Buddha, encouraged a second collaboration also financed in Europe, Shiraz (1928), which, like The Indian Tomb, was a fictitious romance about the origins of the Taj Mahal. Their third film, A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash, 1929), turned out to be their biggest box-office triumph.
Based on an episode in the Sanskrit epic poem Mahabharata, A Throw of Dice is the tale of two royal cousins with adjoining kingdoms. King Sohat (Himansu Rai) and King Ranjit (Charu Roy) share a love of gambling and hunting, but Sohat has ulterior motives for inviting Ranjit on a tiger safari. He wants his henchman Kirkabar (Modhu Bose) to murder Ranjit and stage it as an accident so Sohat can take control of Ranjit’s territory. Luckily, Ranjit is only wounded and can be nursed back to health by Kanwa (Sarada Gupta) and his daughter Sunita (Seeta Devi), who live in seclusion nearby. Ranjit and Sunita fall in love and plan to marry, but Sohat, smitten by Sunita’s beauty, sets in motion an insidious new plot that culminates in a fateful game of dice.
In many ways, A Throw of Dice can be seen as an early prototype of the modern-day Bollywood blockbuster, minus the musical numbers. The film has pageantry, spectacle, attractive leads, and an audience-pleasing good-versus-evil story arc enlivened with romantic passion, deceit, and intrigue on a grand scale. Shot in Rajasthan, the Cecil B. DeMille- worthy production used ten thousand extras, one thousand horses, and fifty elephants from the royal houses of Jaipur, Undaipur, and Mysore. Director Osten and cinematographer Emil Schünemann took advantage of the locations to stage some memorable set pieces, for instance, the opening jungle trek with its wildlife footage of monkeys, snakes, birds, and crocodiles fleeing the sound of the approaching hunters and the full-scale armed assault on Sohat’s kingdom by Ranjit’s forces.
Osten’s attention to visual detail is often remarkably subtle but effective in transforming inanimate objects like Ranjit’s stolen dagger and Sohat’s trick dice into supporting players in the royal drama. He skillfully uses montages to convey opulence and exoticism in two atmospheric segments that frame the wedding feast of Ranjit and Sunita. The first introduces an eccentric parade of jugglers, fire-eaters, sword swallowers, snake charmers, and other performers, while the second depicts the elaborate preparation of the main event with scores of metalworkers, weavers, florists, embroiders, and elephant-decorators frantically working in tandem.
A Throw of Dice, the crowning achievement of the Rai-Pal-Osten collaboration, held the promise of continued international success for the filmmakers, but their plans were interrupted by unforeseen developments in the industry and the wider world. The arrival of talkies quickly put an end to silent filmmaking and, in a more sinister turn of events, the German film industry fell under the control of the National Socialists who preferred to make films that glorified the ideology of Nazi Germany. Rai and Pal also encountered resistance to their coproductions from the India Cinematograph Committee, which, while concerned with sensitive political and religious content, focused primarily on foreign competition to British releases, in particular from Hollywood.
Despite these setbacks, Rai, Pal, and actress Devika Rani, along with director Franz Osten, went on to form Bombay Talkies in 1934. It became one of the biggest film studios in India and produced popular movies such as Achhut Kanya (1936), a social drama about caste system injustice, and the lavish romance Kangan (1939), which helped shape the coming Bollywood style. The year 1934 was also when Osten fled Germany for self-imposed exile in Mumbai, then known as Bombay. Osten was in India in 1940 when arrested by the British and sent to an internment camp, effectively ending his film work with Rai and Pal. After his release, Osten returned home to Bavaria, where he worked at brother Peter’s production company through the war then spent his final years as the director of a heath spa.
For years, Himansu Rai had been overlooked as an important film pioneer in the development of Indian cinema. The recovery of this trilogy has allowed for a reevaluation of his role, as the three films demonstrate a polished technical expertise and a natural acting style that influenced future filmmakers. In his own A Throw of Dice performance, Rai depicts King Sohat’s villainy through feigned generosity and deceitful smiles rather than in melodramatic pantomime.
It is worth noting that Charu Ray, who plays the dashing King Ranjit, rarely acted in films. A Bengali painter and cartoonist, he entered the film industry as a set designer and eventually moved into the director’s chair. His 1936 feature Bangalee was greatly admired by director Satyajit Ray for its realistic depiction of the Bengali middle class and an overt avoidance of Hollywood influences. Throw of Dice lead actress Seeta Devi is a beguiling screen presence who also appeared in Light of Asia and Shiraz but had few roles in the sound era.
Devika Rani must also be singled out for her contributions to the costumes and sets on A Throw of Dice. A designer for a major art studio in London, she had met Rai when he was finishing Shiraz and they soon married. They went to Germany for the final edit of A Throw of Dice and there Rani became a trainee in the Erich Pommer unit at Ufa. This period, which included working on the set of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, was instrumental in Rani’s later career not only as a top actress in Indian sound films but also an influential film producer and studio head.
It is miraculous that A Throw of Dice exists today considering that most of the estimated thirteen-hundred silent films made in India were destroyed in film vault fires, leaving only a handful of surviving movies. At some point in 1945, all three films in the Rai-Pal-Osten trilogy were deposited at the British Film Institute where they were forgotten, until recent years when a restoration effort began in earnest to preserve them. Together, they represent a remarkable transition period when impressive technical advances and epic tales of ancient India helped lead the way to a vibrant national cinema.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius