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Review: Shiraz: A Romance of India Impresses for its Documentary Qualities

Only in the bittersweet final passages does Franz Osten achieve a few moments of genuinely moving melodrama.

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Shiraz: A Romance of India
Photo: Juno Films

Franz Osten’s 1928 silent film Shiraz: A Romance of India is, as its subtitle suggests, an epic historical love story. It’s a fable-like telling of the passion between Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (Charu Roy) and his beloved wife, Mumtaz Muhal (Enakshi Rama Rau), for whom he built the Taj Mahal. The film invents a tragically weepie backstory for the couple, involving desert caravans, sex slaves, a love triangle with a humble potter, Shiraz (Himansu Rai), and even a closely averted execution by elephant foot. For this mega-production, Osten wrangled up horses, camels, elephants, and an army of human extras clad in majestic period attire, and yet the greatest charms of this would-be DeMillean spectacle aren’t its lavish pageantry or sentimental romance, but rather its documentary-like qualities.

The second of three films that the German-born Osten made in India with local producer Himanshu Rai, Shiraz was completely filmed on location in Agra using natural light. Thanks to the British Film Institute’s vivid new restoration of the original camera negatives, the film now stands as a gorgeous record of the Taj Mahal’s interiors, as well as other locations in and around Agra. Osten tends to shoot his actors from a distance, allowing the stunning walls and walkways of the palace to fill the frame. The film’s costumes, which were based closely on literature and paintings from the Mughal Era, provide a stunning sense of verisimilitude, a feeling that history is truly coming to life before one’s eyes.

However, this sensation is dulled somewhat by the feebleness of 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, full of shimmering sitar, propulsive tabla, and yearning basuri, attempts to enrich the characters’ emotions rather than simply underline the narrative’s dramatic beats, but as riveting as the music is on its own, it can only squeeze so much feeling out of the film’s undercooked romantic core.

Only in the bittersweet final passages—during which Shiraz gets epically friend-zoned and the story finally shifts toward its raison d’etre, explaining the origin of the Taj Mahal—does Osten achieve a few moments of genuinely moving melodrama. It’s not enough to redeem Shiraz as a work of narrative art, but the film is full of such rich grandeur and period detail that one can simply ignore all the tedious characters blocking the way of the scenery. Shiraz may ultimately be little more than a historical curiosity, but it’s a compelling one at that.

Cast: Himansu Rai, Charu Roy, Seeta Devi, Enakashi Rama Rao, Maya Devi, Profulla Kumar Director: Franz Osten Screenwriter: William A. Burton Distributor: Juno Films Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Buy: Video

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