‘Shiraz,’ a Silent Spectacle of India, Returns | Modern Society of USA

‘Shiraz,’ a Silent Spectacle of India, Returns

‘Shiraz,’ a Silent Spectacle of India, Returns

Imperialism for the masses, the movie culture of the 1920s, purveyed romantic fantasies of an imaginary East. Theaters were designed to evoke the Alhambra. Rudolph Valentino rose to stardom as the Sheik; Douglas Fairbanks cavorted as the Thief of Bagdad. A Photoplay writer declared Scheherazade was the muse of cinema, and studio bosses were known as “movie moguls.”

In contrast, the 1929 spectacle “Shiraz: A Romance of India” — at Metrograph in a fine 4K digital restoration by the British Film Institute — came by its heritage honestly. Based on Indian source material — albeit directed by a German national, Franz Osten, heading a mainly European crew — “Shiraz” was filmed on location in and around Jaipur with an all-Indian cast, including its producer and guiding light, Himansu Rai, in the title role as the man who designed the Taj Mahal.

Less an exercise in outsider exoticism than a monument to national pride, “Shiraz” invents an imaginary back story for the 17th-century empress whose death inspired her husband to commission the world’s most celebrated mausoleum. The movie opens in grand fashion as brigands waylay a desert caravan carrying a toddler princess. Orphaned in the melee, the child is adopted by a village family that includes a ready-made older brother, Shiraz. Growing into a spirited young woman named Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau), she’s abducted by slave traders and purchased for the harem of a handsome crown prince (Charu Roy, an actor who went on to become a director). Complications ensue when the bereft Shiraz (Rai) sets off to rescue her.

Osten, who with his brother founded a movie studio in Munich, is a more than capable director of expansive battles and intimate love scenes but also has an eye for the baroque symmetry of Islamic architecture and an even better one for the landscape of Rajasthan.

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