The Taj Mahal is back in focus and this time for all the right reasons. Propelling the iconic 17th century monument back into news is the resurrected Indian film of the silent cinema era Shiraz. The classic made in 1928 by Bombay Talkies founder Himansu Rai is a fictitious account of the events that led to the construction of one of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal.
The 90-year-old film, restored by the National Archive of British Film Institute (BFI) and presented by British Council, will be screened at Mumbai’s Sri Shanmukhananda Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi Auditorium today.
Another interesting feature is that ‘Shiraz: A Romance of India’ will have a live score by Anoushka, the late Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar’s talented daughter. “Anoushka was especially chosen to render the score as just like the film is made in collaboration with the UK and Germany, her music too is a fusion of western and Indian classical music,” says BFI head curator Robin Baker.
Adapted from Niranjan Pal’s play, the film tells the story of Shiraz (played by Rai) and Selima (Enakshi Rama Rao). A rescued child, Selima is brought up with Shiraz, a potter’s son. Later Selima is kidnapped by slave raiders and sold to Shah Jahan. Shiraz follows her to the palace. He is discovered and sentenced to be trampled to death by elephants. Meanwhile, the film takes another turn as Selima is found to be of royal birth. Shah Jahan marries her and Selima is Christened Mumtaz Mahal. Shiraz is also let off. But Selima dies a few years later and the grief-stricken Shah Jahan orders an exclusive, exquisite and an unmatched mausoleum to be built for the queen. And it is Shiraz, who though now blind, designs such a mausoleum.
“The romantic thriller with two infamous kissing scenes in a film made in India almost a century ago is perhaps a pointer to the fact that it was largely aimed at international audience,” says Baker.
In 1926, Rai had collaborated with German director Franz Osten to produce “Light of Asia” (Prem Sanyas) on the life of Buddha. Their third silent film inspired by the dice game popular in Maharashtra and titled “A Throw of Dice” (Prapanch Pash) was made in 1929. All of Rai’s three films had some basis in Indian history and featured an all Indian cast and stunning use of locations.
“For the modern viewer,” says Baker, “much of the appeal of these films lies in the sheer beauty of the photography.”
On the silent movie making a ‘big noise’, Anoushka says providing music to the film was a daunting task. “It was very challenging because I had never set music to a film before. My father had composed music to legendary Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece ‘Pather Panchali’ in the matter of a few hours one night way back in 1955. But composing music for the film took me many days. However, it was as satisfying as it was challenging.”
Grammy-nominatedAnoushka is accompanying the India-wide tour with a specially commissioned score performed live by an eight-piece ensemble of players on Indian and western instruments.
The team used the original camera negative of “Shiraz” that they received in 1942 and a preservation copy made in the 70s. These were combined digitally to obtain the best images and restore the frames. It took nearly 18 months.
“The removal of scratches and dirt; flicker and reducing the intensity of light besides decomposition of some frames made it a very challenging task,” says Baker.
The BFI National Archive will make an unparalleled collection of 300 newly digitised films that were shot in India during the early 20th century, including the oldest surviving footage of India on film from 1899 – travelogues, documentaries and home movies – available to audiences in the UK and across India for the first time, as part of India on Film.