The Mumbai Film Festival is celebrating 100 years of Bollywood. From the very beginning, there have been prime examples of Indo-German cooperation in film. Now, young screenplay authors are reviving the tradition.
Axel Hennies throws his hands up in the air, looks at the drum player to his left, then to the sax player in front, before looking at the trumpeter to his right. The musicians of the German band from Hamburg "Tuten und Blasen" start playing when Hennies gives the signal - in a burst of melodramatics.
Behind them, the silent film "Schicksalswürfel" (A Throw of Dice) is being shown on a big screen. The band, which has been playing music for silent film screenings for over 20 years, is familiar with this classic 1929 Franz Osten silent film as well. In 2009 they played music to it in Hamburg. Now, they are all sitting in a rehearsal room in the Indian film metropolis Mumbai.
They have come to the Mumbai Film Festival this year for the celebrations of Bollywood's 100th anniversary.
Soprano saxophonist Georgia Hoppe calls the film "A Throw of Dice" a jewel. "It was one of the first films ever made in a German-Indian collaboration. One thing that is really special about it is that it was filmed here in India."
Germany's Indian film fever
The film is known in India either under its English title "Throw of Dice" or its Hindi name, "Prapancha Pash". It was the third German-Indian silent movie coproduction and was made by German film pioneer Franz Osten and the Indian director Himanshu Rai. It was based on an episode of the Indian epic, The Mahabharata. Franz Osten made 19 films in India from 1926 to 1939.
In Germany, the movie was a blockbuster. Osten chose to film the entire movie in exotic and far-away India. Film producer Stephan Ottenbruch from Berlin says that is what made the film so popular in Germany.
"Himanshu Rai opened the doors to India for Franz Osten. The story was the first to inspire Indo-German cooperation in film," Ottenbruch notes.
Osten used over 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses and 50 elephants to tell the story of King Ranjit - a gambler who lost his kingdom and his would-be bride Sunita to his jealous cousin, Sohan, in a rigged game of craps to determine who would marry her. Sunita soon uncovers the truth about Sohan's evil deeds, and to escape punishment he hurls himself off a cliff into the rapids below. Ranjit and Sunita are reunited and marry.
In 2007, Ottenbach started working to revive German-Indian cooperation in film, when he set out to make a film that would be a hit in both countries. But at first, he didn't have the right contacts. The cooperation had to be put on ice for a while. Then, in 2010, he met the then-director of the Mumbai Film Festival, Srinivasan Narayanan. Shortly thereafter, young German and Indian screenwriters found themselves sitting side-by-side in a workshop.
"The dramatic composition is the same, but the topics are different, of course. Indian films can be successful among German audiences, but for Indian audiences, there usually has to be something to do with India in the film," Ottenbruch explains. That is the reason, he adds, that the star characters of such films tend to be Indians in exile who have returned home, Indians who have emigrated, or Germans visiting India.
In Germany, many people, on the other hand, are well-acquainted with the colorful masala films from Bollywood which are known for their choreographed song and dance. "But Indian cinema has changed," Ottenbruch points out. "Independent cinema is becoming stronger" - and it is starting to represent a kind of film Germans are not familiar with.
India, whose studios are usually very well equipped, and where commercial film marketing works very well, "is very attractive for German producers and directors," he adds. And: "there is enough money in India to invest in movies."
Film kiss seals Indo-German cooperation
Ottenbruch's goal is to make movies like "A Throw of Dice" - ones that appeal to German audiences, while at the same time, "touching Indian hearts."
"Throw of Dice's" kissing scenes with Ranjit and Sunita did not seem to bother Indian filmgoers, despite the fact that such public displays of affection were taboo in Indian society at the time. The scenes still melt hearts today - the showing at this year's Mumbai Film Festival is no exception.
The musicians of "Tuten und Blasen" play, while elephants tramp across the screen and tigers and snakes slip through the jungle . Fanfare is the music of choice as the 1,000-member audience in the National Centre for the Performing Arts auditorium admire the spellbinding scene of the arrival of King Ranjit.
The film ends with King Ranjit kissing his bride Sunita and the audience explodes with applause.