In 2017, the silent melodrama “Shiraz: A Romance of India” earned a restoration by the British Film Institute. It’s what you got when a German director tackled a British script based on an Indian historical romance play back in 1928.
“Shiraz” is a motion picture made on real locations, not sets, whose producers boasted of “no artificial lighting” in an opening credit for “authenticity,” one presumes. Their story? Victorian hokum, with kidnappings, bandits, love that endures past death, and Western mores when it comes to cinematic displays of affection — kissing.
The Bavarian Franz Osten, a Nazi who later made India his filmmaking home, isn’t remembered as one of the innovators or stylists of the German cinema. And this picture — with its stagey, broad and dated acting and far-too-basic cinematography and editing and European (not authentically Indian) pedigree, is best appreciated as a cinematic artifact, a curiosity. It’s a 1920s effort to recreate a fairy tale to go with the creation of an Indian landmark of the Mogul (Mughal) Empire era.
A little princess is orphaned when her caravan is ambushed, and grows up under the care of a kindly potter’s family.
Their oldest son, Shiraz (Himanshu Rai), grows up looking out for Selima (Enakashi Rama Rao), and that care grows into love, even though he has no idea of the difference in their lineages.
Wouldn’t you know it, Selima is kidnapped again, and this time sold into the household of Prince Khurram (Charu Roy), heir to the throne and a guy who likes his slavegirls to be fetching. This happens in spite of the protests of Shiraz, who makes it to the auction in time to rail against Selima’s illegal and unjust imprisonment, and be outbid by the Prince’s aid.
As Selima disappears into the household, Shiraz vows to stay close by — taking a job as a potter’s apprentice, showing the skills he learned in a lifetime of working by his father’s side.
Years pass, and Shiraz’s dreams and palace intrigues of those threatened by the prince fancying Selima coincide in a play to spirit her away, or disgrace her. It fails.
Mughal justice, as we come to understand, is swift and unjust. “You shall die under the elephant’s foot!”
The third act has suspense, a hint of heartbreak and a sentimental punch. The first two acts? Lots of film of Indian architecture, unspoiled by Industrial Era grime and 20th century alterations.
It’s a middling movie by Western standards of the era, technically primitive and emotionally unsophisticated. The story is historical fiction, dull and formulaic. And not being authentically Indian, it lacks value as a cultural touchstone.
But “Shiraz” still, by virtue of its on-location photography and great age, provides a template for representations of that period in Indian history. Like Keaton’s “The General,” it is close enough in time and geography to suggest what 17th century India really looked like, with villages frozen in time for centuries and cities decorated with architecture meant to last through the ages.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Himanshu Rai, Charu Roy, Seeta Devi and Enakashi Rama Rao
Credits: Directed by Franz Osten, script by William A. Burton, based on the play by Niranjan Pal. A Film Movement Plus release.
Running time: 1:45