“Shiraz: A Romance of India”
Franz Osten’s 1928 silent film “Shiraz: A Romance of India” is an epic historical love story between Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (Charu Roy) and his wife, Mumtaz Muhal (Enakshi Rama Rau), for whom he built the Taj Mahal. The film invented a tragically weepie backstory for the couple which involve desert caravans, sex slaves, a love triangle with a humble potter, Shiraz (Himansu Rai), and a closely averted execution by elephant foot. Director Osten was able to round up horses, camels, elephants, and an army of human extras dressed in period attire, but the greatest charms of this film aren’t the pageantry or sentimental romance but rather its documentary-like qualities.
“Shiraz” was completely filmed on location in Agra using natural light. Due to the British Film Institute’s beautiful new restoration of the original camera negatives, the film has become a gorgeous record of the Taj Mahal’s interiors, as well as other locations in and around Agra. Osten shoots his actors from a distance, allowing the beauty of the palace to fill the frame. The film’s costumes, which were based closely on literature and paintings from the Mughal Era give a stunning sense of history.
However, this sensation is dulled somewhat by the film’s plot. William A. Burton’s screenplay provides plenty of opportunity for sensational set pieces—a slave auction here, a massive gathering at the palace there—but the story drags when it moves away from spectacle and toward the hackneyed romance at the film’s center. Anoushka Shankar’s expressive new score is full of sitar, tabla, and basuri that attempt to enrich the characters’ emotions. This is a shamelessly romantic and fairly romanticized, telling of the love affair honored by one the most beautiful mausoleum in the world.
Shiraz is a humble, but exceptionally talented potter, who feels deep love for his adopted sister Selima who is sold as a slave into the royal court and they are separated. A love affair slowly begins to spark between Selima and Prince Khurram. Meanwhile, general’s daughter Dalia (Seeta Devi) is plotting to get the prince. The story may seem slight, but it is beautiful to watch. The romantic leads are very sweet, with the halting love story between Selima and the Prince that is believable. The location backdrops of the mountains and palaces are gorgeous.
The action sequence that opens the film, with a caravan raided on its way across the desert, leaving the baby Selima behind, is brilliantly staged. Frequent cuts to her nurse anxiously peeking out at the incoming danger ramp up the tension. There are moments of violence elsewhere too, notably two gruesome threats lobbied at Shiraz himself and the “elephant’s foot” moment caused me to audibly gasp. It’s a fairly dark story, in truth, with poison, plotting, torture, vengeance, heartbreak and loss.