This silent romantic melodrama from 1929 is reissued by the BFI in a nice print, sharp but with considerable depth and subtlety of shade, including some pleasing murkiness. It is an extravagantly beautiful realisation of royal splendour in Rajasthan, inspired by the ancient Mahabharata but looking like what was then the fairly recent past. Anyone expecting an Indian Cecil B DeMille had better look elsewhere. The filmmakers (German director Franz Osten and Indian actor/producer Himansu Rai) deliver an elegant, pleasing, well-organised piece, admirably serious about its subjectmatter (love, desire, power, and especially gambling) but never pretentious or boring. Not a second is wasted nor a false note struck. Even the love scenes, even the children’s roles are acted with a restraint that one scarcely associates with cinematic epic.
I was rather dreading the new soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney, not being a fan, but I am pleased to report that it is mostly excellent. This is Sawhney in full orchestral mode: he proves to be a dab hand at sub-Rimsky orientalist doodling, very much the kind of thing that would have been popular at the time the film was made, and appropriately evocative of the never-neverish world in which the story is placed. The music is episodic but coherent, rich in melody and tone colour: it invigorates the action without ever going too far in dictating the mood – at least until the last fifteen minutes, when Sawhney gives in to the temptation to include some vocal numbers, which outstay their fit as action develops and mood changes.