Saturday, November 08, 2008

MIAAC: A Throw of the Dice

In the 1920’s German director Franz Osten and Indian actor-producer Himansu Rai collaborated on three of the most artistically ambitious Indian films of the silent era. Despite their prominence in the Indian film industry during the 1920’s and 1930’s, the events of 1939 would derail both men’s careers, with Rai dying of nervous exhaustion and the British authorities interning Osten for being a German national with an inconvenient membership in the National Socialist Party. Thanks to the restoration efforts of the British Film Institute, audiences now have an opportunity to rediscover their third great silent collaboration, A Throw of Dice (1929, trailer here), which can be seen as it was intended, on a big screen, during the MIAAC Film Festival.

The restored Dice is now particularly accessible for contemporary audiences thanks to the newly commissioned soundtrack composed by Nitin Sawhney. Employing the London Symphony Orchestra for western oriented classical music, as well as flute and table players for traditional Indian flavor, Sawhney’s themes and orchestrations have a lushness that nicely compliments the visuals of this epic romance. Though not a radical departure from the music of Dice’s era, there is a certain modern sensibility in his music, which helps viewers relate to the film. For some reason, contemporary soundtracks are remarkably effective at breaking down emotional resistance to silent films. While restoration preserves the great silent films from decay, an effective new score can also save them from obscurity.

Taking its title from an incident in the Mahabharata, Dice is driven by universal motivations, namely love and greed, telling the story of two young rival kings and the common woman they both love. Ostensibly friends, King Sohan (played by the producer Rai) attempts to assassinate King Ranjit in a staged hunting accident. However, a local healer foils his plan, when he and his daughter Sunita nurse Ranjit back to health. While both princes fall in love with Sunita, she rejects the lavish gifts of the deceitful Sohan, eventually losing her heart to her honest but irresponsible patient.

Despite her father’s opposition, Sunita agrees to run off with Ranjit. They are happy together for seven days, until the mechanizations of Sohan’s evil schemes start to take effect. Framed for the murder of Sunita’s father, Ranjit finds himself enslaved to Sohan after losing his kingdom in a rigged dice game. Dice is quite the morality tale, identifying the vice of gambling as the source of all the spectacular misfortunes which befall Ranjit and Sunita.

Employing huge set pieces and extensive location shots, Dice is epic in scope. Beautifully restored by the BFI, Osten’s glorious black and white visuals look great on the big screen, sometimes redeeming a story that leans a bit on contrivances. However, the acting in Dice is a particularly pleasant surprise, seeming far subtler than the wild-eyed exaggerations commonly associated with silent cinema. With the able support of Sawhney’s elegant music, it makes for a fascinating viewing experience. (How often do you see any silent films on the big screen, let alone an Indian-German co-production?) Dice screens again today at the Tribeca Cinemas as part of the MIAAC and an American tour of the film is in development, which would feature the Symphony Orchestra of India performing soundtrack live in concert.