A Throw of Dice: a Romance of India (1929)
"Bring on the jugglers!"
I got my Devis and Ranis mixed up when talking about the German-Indian silent film A Throw of Dice the other day. Should've had that extra cup of coffee after all! The film does star the luminous Seeta Devi, one of the early Anglo-Indian stars, born Renee Smith. But it was costume designer Devika Rani (who eventually married producer/star Himansu Rai and co-founded Bombay Talkies) who supposedly picked Dilip Kumar out of a crowd of extras and said something like "Give this boy a screen test."
The opening scenes show off all the tigers and crocodiles and trained elephants at the film-maker's disposal, and then quickly get to the heart of the story. Evil King Sohan is planning to kill his friend and rival King Ranjit in a faked hunting accident. He's thwarted when Ranjit is healed by a holy man, one who left Ranjit's court because he couldn't bear to see the king wasting his days in dissipation, particularly gambling.
Seeta Devi plays the healer's daughter Sunita. Needless to say, the relationship between rival kings, addicted to hunting and gambling, is only going to be exacerbated when a random beautiful girl is plunked in their midst. Early on, Sohan hits on her, and Sunita gives him an awesomely scornful look, which totally puts me on her side. (She also gets some full-on screen kissing with her leading man).
For once, though, the father refuses the marriage of his daughter to the king because he's worried about her happiness; he knows that, at this point at least, the king isn't good enough for her. Sure, cue the complications, and the inevitable moral lesson about gambling, but the visuals are lovely, the stars are engaging (and refreshingly free of stereotypical silent film overacting), and oh! The architecture of Rajasthan, where it was filmed!
Those costumes of Devika Rani's are pretty gorgeous, too, even in black and white.
The new score was produced in 2006 by Nitin Sawhney, The Namesake's composer, and while it's a fine classical piece, it's too European for my taste. For example, there's a scene in which a bejeweled nautch girl dances to the tabla and veena, while the score is all light horns and violins, melodious and slightly moody. Jarring. If I were to watch it again, which could easily happen, I'd mute the sound, and try it out with Indian music playing on the stereo.