“Shiraz: A Romance of India”: Film Review

It is a delight to see how a film can make the past feel so vivid. In the case of Shiraz, doubly so. Made in 1928, Shiraz tells the tale of a great love which came to be immortalised in stone – in the shape of the Taj Mahal. 

It is a story of love both requited and unrequited. Those lovers from almost four hundred years in the past come back strikingly to life, and so do the actors in this film shot almost a century ago in the years between the two World Wars.

The story itself is fanciful and the plot pays only passing reference to historical facts. It is the stuff of melodrama, in the best sense: a toddler is the sole survivor of an attack on her caravan and is rescued from death – and from a fearsome cobra – by a passing villager. He names her Selima, not realising she is a famous princess. Selima grows up with her adoptive brother Shiraz (Himansu Rai), becoming over the years the object of his growing admiration and affection. Shiraz becomes a master potter, and dreams of love. But life plays a cruel trick on him.

Now a young woman graced with good looks and imperial bearing, Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau) is kidnapped by slave traders. Her brother follows, hoping to rescue her.  The secret princess is sold at a slave market – and somehow lands on her feet, thanks to her great dignity, bearing and repartie. Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) falls in love with her, to Shiraz’s great despair.  Twists and turns follow, a wicked plotter (Seeta Devi) intervenes to subvert the course of things, and though true love prevails, it is only for some.

The film is stunning. The passage of time has no bearing on its impact and neither does the lack of spoken dialogue: it’s a silent film, beautifully restored by the BFI National Archive, and set to music by Anoushka Shankar.  Shankar’s score is glorious and inventive, unobtrusively moving from ancient to modern and back. A particularity of her score is that it reflects the action and emotions in the film, and does not lead or manipulate the audience’s emotions.  Given the melodramatic theme, and the lushness of the imagery, this relative reserve enhances the film beautifully.

The making of the film is itself of great interest – a co-production between India, Germany and Britain, initiated and led by Himansu Rai. Rai was an Indian barrister, who had worked in London and then moved to Germany, with his wife Devika Rani – who also became influential in Indian cinema in her own right, to learn about filmmaking.  Rai subsequently collaborated with German director Franz Osten on a number of films, one of which is Shiraz: A Romance of India.

Shiraz is a film on a grand scale. A cast of reportedly tens of thousands, a standing army, lavish and magnificent costumes, endless jewellery, immense elephants and untold numbers of camels.  This is sumptuous work from art director Promode Nath. Set against this, the acting is beautifully restrained.

When the New York Times first reviewed the film in 1928, it thought “the acting, judged by Western standards, lacks force and fervour, though a great improvement in that respect on previous Indian pictures. Its lovers do not burn with fierce fires; they rather languish through a linked sweetness overlong drawn out”.

By twenty-first century standards however, the ‘force and fervour’ feel just right. The protagonists’ dignity and thoughtfulness also feel deeply convincing, and moving. The sense of growing enchantment and love Prince Khurram senses for Selima is charming to watch – a great performance from Charu Roy. The film, as a whole, rests on the credibility of that love – how else, incidentally, would the Taj Mahal have been built?   Eniksha Rama Rau, as Selima, responds to this beautifully.  When the lovers finally kiss – itself a remarkable moment for Indian cinema – there is no doubting their mutual love. 

The film is forthright on the cruelty of power, about inequality, injustice, slavery and brutality – and that the power of a woman to say ‘no’, in that setting, is entirely dependent on the decision of a powerful man to accept that ‘no’.

Shiraz is based on a play by the writer Niranjan Pal.  Pal, together with Himansu Rai and Franz Osten, later on in the early 1930s, founded their own film studio in India, ‘Bombay Talkies’.

The cinematography, by Emil Schünemann and Henry Harris, is beautiful, with striking compositions and masterful use of light and shadow. The logistical and technical difficulty of filming should not be taken for granted – among the many challenges of making the film, the heat, dust and very bright exterior light must have presented added complexity.

Sometimes, it is in the smallest details that a film becomes most moving. While the skies seemed to have been starkly bright during the filming of Shiraz, it must have also been rather windy.  With so many exterior scenes featured in the film, it is the frequent fluttering of tree leaves, or of the fabrics – the actors’ costumes – that remind one how vividly real everything in front of the camera must be, a reminder of how it would have felt at the time to create this enchanting tale.

This sense of the real must be thanks in good part to the restoration work which here feels extraordinary: pure visual pleasure. The texture of the images and the use of varying depth of field are fascinating in their own right.  Shiraz: A Romance of India, for all its romance and enchantment, feels a strikingly real testimony of a long-gone filmmaking era.  

Producer: Himansu Rai
Director: Franz Osten
Screenplay: William A. Burton and Niranjan Pal, adapted from the play by Niranjan Pal
Cinematographers: Emil Schünemann, Henry Harris
Art director: Promode Nath
Cast: Himansu Rai, Eniksha Rama Rau, Seeta Devi, Charu Roy, Maya Roy

Shiraz: A Romance of India is screening as part of We Are One Global Festival 2020 on Tuesday 2nd June at 5.15pm BST.
It is also available to stream or buy from the BFI.