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Review: Landmark 1928 Indian silent film ‘Shiraz: A Romance of India’

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A scene from the silent film “Shiraz: A Romance of India.”
(Juno Films)
Film Critic

I’ll never forget the first time I saw “Shiraz,” and if you take a chance and take in this gorgeous silent extravaganza, a landmark of Indian cinema, you will surely feel the same.

Playing Jan. 22 for one night only at a quartet of Laemmle theaters, 1928’s “Shiraz: A Romance of India” caused a sensation when it appeared accompanied by an Indian ensemble at 1994’s Giornate del Cinema Muto silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy.

Now, with the benefit of a meticulous 2K restoration by the British Film Institute and a spectacular score composed by Anoushka Shankar (who also can be heard on the sitar), this epic of exoticism is coming to its natural big screen home.

For this sumptuous fictional reworking of the romantic origins of the Taj Mahal does not stint on scale. Blessed with a cast of literal thousands, not to mention camels, elephants and horses without number, this film is more than set in 17th century India, it transports you back to that time and place.

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Though its subject matter and its cast are completely Indian, “Shiraz” was directed by the German Franz Osten, responsible for a trilogy of Indian silents (“Light of Asia” and the marvelous “A Throw of Dice” are the other two).

The driving force of the movie, however, was its Indian producer and co-star Himansu Rai, who dreamed of making his country a player on the global film scene and eventually set up the legendary Bombay Talkies production company.

Part of the reason “Shiraz” is so spectacular is, according to an article by Suresh Chabria, former director of India’s National Film Archive, the persuasive powers of its principals.

Somehow, they persuaded India’s richest maharajas, the rulers of Jaipur, Udaipur and Mysore, to not only make their elaborate Mogul-era palaces available as locations but to also supply the rich costumes and jewelery, the numerous animals and the hordes of armed men who play a part in the story.

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And, true to its intentions, “Shiraz,” shot by Emil Schünemann and Henry Harris, is drenched in visual exoticism, including everything from trained monkeys and dangerous snakes to rings that dispense hidden poison.

Traditional customs are also given their due, as soothsayers and fortune tellers are regularly consulted and the threat of “death by elephant’s foot” is given an airing. That’s something you don’t hear every day.

Set “over three centuries ago,” “Shiraz” starts off with a bang as an impressive camel caravan is attacked by wave after wave of ruthless bandits. Many die, but a baby princess escapes harm.

She’s found by a humble village potter who names her Selima and raises her as a sibling to his son Shiraz, a young man who has quite the future predicted for him by a local fortune teller.

“For this child, Shiraz, great things will come from the desert: love, sorrow and fame immortal.”

The adult Shiraz (producer Rai) grows up to fall in love with Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau), but she complicates matters by thinking of him only as a brother.

Speaking of complications, Selima is kidnapped by vile slave traders and ends up as part of the harem of the benevolent Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) in the great city of Agra.

Impressed by her fortitude, the prince begins a delicate courtship of Selima, while Shiraz, fearing the worst and aided by the beautiful but treacherous Dalia (Seeta Devi), puts together an elaborate plan with saving her in mind.

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Much of this plays out gloriously if not surprisingly, and “Shiraz’s” final section, a totally fictitious riff on the inspiration for and construction of the Taj Mahal, is also unexpectedly moving.

Because silent films were never silent, with music accounting for what is considered to be half of a movie’s impact, “Shiraz’s” terrific Shankar score, played by nine musicians, is essential in heightening every emotion and moment of tension.

“They were the movies until sound came in, calling them silent suggests they were lacking something,” film historian Kevin Brownlow famously wrote. Take a look at “Shiraz” and you’ll see what he means.

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‘Shiraz: A Romance of India’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22, Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Claremont 5, Claremont

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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@KennethTuran


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