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.
“Shiraz” was the second of three silent movies Osten directed in India in conjunction with Rai. (The last, “A Throw of Dice,” taken from the Mahabharata, is available for rent or purchase on Amazon.) The coming of sound sent Osten back to Germany, but in 1934 he returned to India where Rai had established a studio and made 16 talking pictures until he was interned by British authorities as a member of the Nazi Party and deported in 1939.
According to Mordaunt Hall’s review in The New York Times, “Shiraz” boasted about 50,000 extras, 300 camels and seven elephants — one drafted as an executioner, foot poised to crush a condemned man’s skull. Hollywood could only aspire to the opulence afforded by the movie’s palace gardens and expansive mosques, let alone by the finished Taj Mahal.
No less impressive than these lavish backdrops are the movie’s understated performances and its overall naturalism. Satyajit Ray, who brought neorealism to India in his 1955 “Pather Panchali,” praised Osten as a pioneer with a “decided penchant for realism.”
The restored “Shiraz” is further enhanced by the composer-sitar player Anoushka Shankar. As her father Ravi Shankar’s inspired improvisation gave “Pather Panchali” a lyrical jolt, so her dramatic, infectiously percussive score, performed by a traditional ensemble infused with strings and a Moog synthesizer, sets the pace of this movie.