Shiraz: A Romance of India

 

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From the BFI National Archive a restoration of an unfamiliar title.

 

Shiraz

 

This film has played in British cinemas in the past but that past is so long ago that it seems appropriate to review it here despite the fact that reissues are not usually covered by us. It is in any case a brand new restoration by the BFI and it comes complete with a newly commissioned score from Anoushka Shankar whose career as a composer and sitar player sees her following in the footsteps of her celebrated father Ravi Shankar.

 

Shiraz is a film which dates from 1928 and, most unusually for a silent film, it was a co-production between the UK, Germany (its director was the German filmmaker Franz Osten) and India where it was shot not in a studio but entirely on location. That was fitting because the story it tells is a fanciful romantic tale set in that country in the 17th century. The central character is first encountered as a child, a girl of royal blood in a caravan train ambushed in the desert who, as a sole survivor, is brought up by the village potter who finds her. When she grows up, the girl (Enakshi Rama Rau) who has been named Selima finds herself closely drawn to the potter’s son (Himansu Rai), he being the titular Shiraz. But then Selima is seized by slave traders and is sold off to join the harem of Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) in Agra. Shiraz follows determined to rescue her. However, the Prince treats Selima, who proclaims that she was born free, as somebody special but due to his ignorance of Selima’s parentage he cannot see her as a suitable bride.  Even so there may be developments that will mean she does not need to be rescued after all. 

 

The material may be old-fashioned and in the tone of its own era but it is not without occasional echoes of the legendary Japanese tale retold in 2013 in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. In this instance it becomes a grand romantic saga leading to what can almost be regarded as a final twist when the narrative leads up to a famous known reality at its climax. Aided by this and by the interest inherent in the location shooting, Shiraz is surprisingly enjoyable. I use the word ‘surprisingly’ because, however much we owe to Himansu Rai for producing this film and two companion pieces, his performance in the title role is feeble and, while the storyline becomes intriguing in its later stages, much of the plot and its presentation smack of its day and therefore of an era long gone. But, one or two amateurish moments aside, this fine quality restoration with its appealing music score is not only a genuine historical curiosity but a well-paced and engaging work with scenes of spectacle that still impress. If Himansu Rai’s acting is weak, the other players are better including Seeta Devi as the villainess Lady Dalia who regards Selima as a rival to be put down. All told, Shiraz is a novel experience and a film to seek out be it in a cinema or on its imminent issue on DVD/Blu Ray or online from BFI Player.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Himansu Rai, Enakshi Rama Rau, Charu Roy, Seeta Devi, Maya Devi, Profulla Kumar.

 

Dir Franz Osten, Pro Himansu Rai, Screenplay William A. Burton, from the play by Niranjan Pal, Ph Henry Harris and Emil Schünemann, Art Dir Lala Brigmohontal and Promode Nath, Music Anoushka Shankar.

 

British Instructional Films/Emelka Film/Himansu Rai Film-British Film Institute.
105 mins. UK/Germany/India. 1928. Rel: 2 February 2018. Cert. U.