‘‘Shiraz : A Romance of India’’

Abhijit Ghosh-Dastidar

The British Council presented Franz Osten’s ‘‘Shiraz : A Romance of India’’ (UK/India/Germany, b/w, silent, 105 mins). Based on a play by Niranjan Pal, the film is shot entirely in India, with an all-Indian cast, numbering about 50,000. Cameramen Henry Harris and Emil Schunemann shoot the film in genuine locations, using only natural light and without any sets. The film with rare sensuality was shot gorgeously on location in Agra, including Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. The British Film Institute restoration team follows the screenplay by William Burton, along with full intertitles, retaining the original elements, as long as possible. Over three centuries ago, a caravan laden with riches is crossing the Persian desert. As the caravan enters a gorge, there is a sudden close-up on a baby princess. The invading marauders attack the caravan with swords and guns. Boulders are dropped, and the royal palanquin crashes. The little princes toddles out. Hassan pulling a donkey rescues the princess from bandits, and reptiles. Shiraz Hassan’s potter family takes care of the little princess, Selima. A soothsayer predicts great love, sorrow and great immortality. The amulet on the princess’s necklace indicates a divine gift. Affections and odorations blossom between Shiraz, the potter and his new playmate Selima.

One day horse riders attack the village and kidnap Selima, a teenager. Shiraz traces Selima in the Al-Khaib slave market. Selima is purchased by Prince Khurram (Charu Roy). Shiraz (Himansu Rai) follows Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau) to Agra. Khurram marries Selima, the 17th century princess, who becomes Empress Mumtaz Mahal. Dalia (Renee Smith Seeta Devi) poisons a maid and Selima. Shiraz is tied to a wooden plank to be trampled by elephants, but is saved at the final moment. He is retained by the prince to design the Taj Mahal, in memory of the dead queen. Even though Shiraz has lost his eyesight, his eyes are gorged out, to prevent any replication of the Taj. Sharp cuts, dissolves and close-ups delineate the story on the construction of the Taj, three centuries ago. The romantic fiction feature abounds in exotic locations, gorgeous costumes, desert ambushes, executions by despotic rulers, beautiful princesses and wicked mistresses. The acting is convincing and never meandering.

New music, composed by Anoushka Sharma on Sitar, brings life to the silent film. The crescendo falls in sorrowful moments and rises with horse hoof beats and thuds of elephants. Ravichandra Kulur (vansuri and kanjira), Idris Rahman (clarinet), Preetha Naryanan (violin), Danny Keane (cello and piano), Pirashanna Thevarajah (mridangam), Sanju Sahai (tabla) and Chirostopher Kemsley (harmonium) are part of the live performance, who build up the musical and film experience. The background musical score, composed and orchestrated by Anoushka, is never hurried but filled with melodic flourishes, turns and twists; stretching between andante and rapid tempo.

Vol. 50, No.21, Nov 26 - Dec 2, 2017