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Shiraz (1928) is a timeless, exotic love story that is mesmerizing even 92 years after its release

Directed by Franz Osten and starring Himanshu Rai, the classic film was restored by the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive and screened as part of the We Are One: Global Film Festival in collaboration with YouTube.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Watching a silent film made 92 years ago is nothing short of a marvel. To watch a beautifully restored version only makes one deeply grateful for being able to view a slice of cinematic history. Marvel and gratitude were the feelings that the screening of Shiraz (1928) online evoked as viewers from across the world tuned in to the We Are One global film festival.

Shiraz has been restored by the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive with an original score commissioned from Anoushka Shankar. The film was introduced by BFI head curator Robin Baker.

Directed by the German filmmaker Franz Osten, Shiraz: A Romance Of India (1928) tells the fictional love story of Shiraz (Himanshu Rai), designer of the Taj Mahal, and Selima, who later becomes the empress Mumtaz Mahal (Enakshi Rama Rau).

Selima is of noble birth but is orphaned and adopted by Shiraz’s family. He falls in love with her, but she is abducted by slave traders and finds herself in the royal harem. There, she catches the eye of Prince Khurram (Charu Roy), who later becomes the emperor Shahjahan. She becomes the empress of India while Shiraz's love for her remains. But her untimely demise leaves the emperor heartbroken and he orders the building of a magnificent mausoleum to honour his love for her. The architect of the monument turns out to be none other than Shiraz, the only one capable of conceiving the monument to love.

The film evokes the grandeur of the Mughal era and the team went to great lengths to make it as authentic to the period as possible. The intertitle tells us that no sets were constructed for the shooting and no artificial lighting was used. If that was not enough of a formidable feat to pull off, Rai managed to persuade some of the maharajas of the time to lend jewellery and costumes as well as offer their palaces for the shooting. With snake charmers, palm readers, elephants and camels, the film presents an exotic India to the West along with the enchanting romance of the Taj Mahal.

The film mesmerized audiences in Germany when it was premiered at Berlin in December 1928 but ran into trouble on home turf. Several people wrote to the authorities deeming the love between Shiraz and Mumtaz Mahal to be scandalous and without any historical authenticity.

The film also features Khurram and Selima kissing, much to the surprise of audiences who thought it irregular, given the time period and that the film told a story from India, a land associated with heightened morality and conservatism! Benjamin Zachariah in his book After the Last Post: The Lives of Indian Historiography (2019) brings to light the historian HG Rawlinson’s note, written at the time of the film’s release in India, wherein, without having watched the film, he agreed with the complaints received and wrote, “Mr Himanshu Rai, the Indian producer of the film, has made an Indian film every bit as full of ‘depravity’ as ‘Western’ films.”

Anoushka Shankar’s musical score for the restored version is a joyous accompaniment to the film and complements it in every way. The timeless quality of the film is testimony to the sheer talent of the transnational team comprising Rai, Osten, Niranjan Pal, who had written the story on which the film was based, William A Burton, who wrote the screenplay, the camerawork by Josef Wirsching, H Harris and Emil Schunemann, and the art direction by Promode Nath. It also demonstrates Rai’s desire to place India on the global map through its films.

Shiraz marked the second collaboration between Himanshu Rai and Franz Osten who had worked on The Light Of Asia (1926) based on the life of Prince Siddhartha and his search for enlightenment. Following the success of Shiraz, they also made A Throw Of Dice (1929), based on an episode from the Mahabharata.