Shiraz: A Love Story Of The Taj | art and culture | Hindustan Times
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Shiraz: A Love Story Of The Taj

Himanshu Rai’s 1928 silent film has been restored and will soon be screened in India

art and culture Updated: Oct 28, 2017 20:38 IST
Rachel Dwyer
A still from Shiraz. The film revolves around the story of a potter and the girl who would become Mumtaz Mahal.
A still from Shiraz. The film revolves around the story of a potter and the girl who would become Mumtaz Mahal.(Photo courtesy British Council)

It is thought only around 25 or so films survive from the silent period of Indian cinema. Many of these are fragments so the British Film Institute’s restoration of a complete film print is a particularly welcome event.

‘Shiraz: A romance of India (1928) is set in the 17th century. A potter, Shiraz (Himanshu Rai), finds a baby girl abandoned after an attack by bandits on a caravan. He brings her up as Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau), but falls in love with her. She is captured and sold to Prince Khurram (Charu Roy), later Shah Jehan, who falls in love with her. The scheming Dalia (Seeta Devi or Renee Smith) draws attention to Shiraz’s love for her and he is sentenced to death by elephant trampling. When he is reprieved, he continues to love Selima from a distance. A locket reveals Selima is the daughter of Noor Jehan and is renamed Mumtaz Mahal. After her death, Shah Jehan commissions models for a monument for his beloved and Shiraz’s is chosen as the Taj Mahal. Shiraz was to be blinded so he could not create anything else so beautiful but he was found to have worked so hard he was already blind. He and Shah Jehan sit in front of the monument to the woman they both loved.

Another still from the film Shiraz. (Photo courtesy British Council.)

The film is one of the three Indo-German silent features and is the third to be restored after ‘The Light of Asia/Prem Sanyas (1926), an adaptation of Sir Edwin Arnold’s 1879 poem on the life of the Buddha, and ‘A Throw of Dice/Prapancha Pash’ (1929), a story from the Mahabharata. All three films have English, German and Hindi titles which show their intended audiences.

Franz (Ostermayer) Osten (1876-1956) had worked for his brother’s Emelka Films in Munich on Heimat (homeland nostalgia) films. Himanshu Rai (1892-1940), a British-trained lawyer from a wealthy Bengali family, invited him to India to film ‘Light of Asia’, and Osten ended up joining Bombay Talkies, the studio Rai set up with his wife Devika Rani. Osten made many films in India including the famous ‘Achhut Kanya’ (1936) before he was interned and deported during the Second World War. He was one of several Germans at Bombay Talkies including the cameraman Josef Wirsching who returned to India after the war, his last work being on ‘Pakeezah’ (1971), along with set designer Karl von Spreti, who was later assassinated in Guatemala while posted there as ambassador of West Germany.

Bombay Talkies was one of the places that introduced elements of European film style to Indian cinema. The Germans were among other Europeans who worked in Bombay cinema at this period, including the legendary Mary Evans, Fearless Nadia, who was the stunt queen of her time and a great box office draw for Wadia Movietone.

Shiraz was to be blinded so he could not create anything else so beautiful but he was found to have worked so hard he was already blind. He and Shah Jehan sit in front of the monument to the woman they both loved.

Osten worked closely with Himanshu Rai and writer Niranjan Pal, bringing his style of Orientalist epic, in this film with Mughal architecture and elaborate costumes, parades of elephants and camels, passionate kissing, made with the art direction of Promode Nath and cinematography by Emil Schünemann and Henry Harris.

Some of the European elements were introduced by Rai and Rani who had worked in European film studios, including Ufa in Berlin, and much is found about their projects in the ‘Report and Evidences of the Indian Cinematograph Committee, 1927-8’ the Government of India’s enquiry into censorship and promotion of empire films.

Himanshu Rai had taken his theatre group of high class Indians, Indian Players, to London. Experienced in theatre, Rai looked for film experience in Munich after failing to get support in UK. The films were screened across Europe, ‘Light of Asia’ even having a Royal Command Performance in Windsor, but while they were praised for their photography the consensus was that they were rather boring and overlong.

The films had different scores for release in different countries and original scores have been composed for the restored prints. The new score for ‘Shiraz’ is by Anoushka Shankar, a fitting backdrop to the blend of East and West in this film. In the screenings planned across India, Shiraz may find new audiences and help stimulate interest in India’s rich and cosmopolitan film heritage.

Rachel Dwyer is professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London.

The writer is indebted to a PhD she recently supervised by Dr. Eleanor Halsall: The Indo-German beginnings of Bombay Talkies, 1925-1939