MVD Rewind Collection: Shiraz (1928) - Reviewed

Silent cinema is unusual to find in the MVD Visual catalog.  And yet the home video company has taken the leap with the release of the recent British Film Institute restoration of the long thought-to-be-lost Indian silent epic Shiraz from 1928.  Produced by and starring Indian film pioneer Himansu Rai as the title character, Shiraz presents in the grand melodramatic fashion of silent cinema a romantic fable tinged with historical fiction. 

The “true” story of how the world-famous Islamic mausoleum the Taj Mahal came to be, Shiraz imagines a backstory involving the emperor Shah Jahan’s (Charu Roy) late wife Mumtaz Mahal (Enakshi Rama Rau) and her surrogate older brother Shiraz (Rai).  As an infant Mahal is kidnapped and sold into slavery before meeting and falling for Jahan, while mistaken identities threaten the life of Rai who after going blind designs the famed Taj Mahal.

Though overtly a fantasy, the film’s real aim is to provide something of a visual travelogue of India, showcasing the luxuries of wealth contrasted with the struggles of poverty with the upper and lower classes clashing together at times for the sake of the camera.  In addition to sporting numerous real world locations, there’s an old fashioned sense of Hollywood spectacle sweeping through many of the earlier battle sequences and/or celebratory parades.  Visually, this can be a stunning film to look at thanks to the work of two cinematographers, Henry Harris and German director of photography Emil Sch√ľnemann.

Speaking of nationalities, Shiraz represented for the time a unique coproduction between India, Germany and Great Britain.  Though director Franz Osten was German, the working relationship formed between himself and producer/actor Rai ensured the two would make many more films together over the years.  Not to mention the film was being made at a time of political unrest in India with efforts to wrestle away from the firm grip of British rule, with the film arguably more or less serving as a visual example of why India matters.

Over the years, German and Indian prints of Shiraz deteriorated past the point of salvageable.  That is, until intact elements carefully preserved at the BFI National Archive were unearthed.  Combined in parts with the original camera negative as well as some shots that were too damaged reconstructed from various sources, the elements were restored in 4K using the delicate wet-gate scanning system to ensure minimal damage to the film.

Aiding the film’s luminous, frequently radiant vistas is an original specially commissioned score by Grammy Award winning musician Anoushka Shankar.  Authentic to the world of the picture and an organic listen in it’s own right, the original score created for Shiraz like the film itself transports you the viewer into a world never experienced in cinema up to that time.  Though a work of pure romantic melodrama with many of the tropes germane to silent cinema (particular German silent film), Shiraz is an important piece of cultural history for world cinema and the earliest offerings in modern Indian cinema as it would come to be known. 

--Andrew Kotwicki