In the 1920s, actor-producer Himansu Rai collaborated with German director Franz Osten to make three captivatingly beautiful films in India, with all-Indian casts. Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas, 1925), Shiraz (1928), and A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash, 1929) represent not just three of precious few Indian- made silents to survive but are also a testament to the accomplishment of the country’s burgeoning film industry. Shiraz, the middle film, is arguably the most sumptuously beautiful, a jewel of international cinema that wraps a tragic romance into the history of a marvel of Mughal architecture.
Made with the support of British and German studios, Shiraz was an international production, with a classically Indian aesthetic. Viewed today, now sparkling in a revelatory restoration by the British Film Institute, Shiraz is an unforgettable spectacle, celebrating both India’s national mythology and its stunning landscapes. It is an epic romance that culminates in the building of the Taj Mahal, and for sheer visual splendor, there are few films of its era to match it.
Rai, born in 1892 to an aristocratic Bengali family, had trained as a lawyer and it was while working in London that he met Indian playwright and future filmmaker Niranjan Pal, who went on to write all three of Rai’s Osten-directed silents. Rai wanted to produce films to appeal to both Indian and Western audiences and eventually to set up his own film studio. Osten’s Bavaria-based studio Emelka was quick to sign up to his first plan, which helped to bring in the UK’s British Instructional Films (BIF), a mostly nonfiction outfit pivoting at this time toward narrative work. Rai acted as both producer and star on the Osten trilogy, and he met his wife, future movie star Devika Rani, on the third of these coproductions, A Throw of Dice. Together they went on to achieve his dream of founding the famous Bombay Talkies studio in 1934. Rai died just a few years later in 1940, but his legacy both as cofounder of that studio and for his involvement in many of India’s earliest films is still celebrated today.
Osten was born Franz Ostermayr in Munich in 1876. As a young man he took over his father’s photography studio with his brother Peter, and they transformed the business into a movie theater, with Franz also finding work as a cameraman. In 1909, Peter founded his own studio, Münchener Lichtspielkunst, later known as Emelka (MLK). During the war, Osten was first a newspaper correspondent and then a soldier, seeing action in Tyrol, Galicia, France, and Italy. He returned to Germany and was soon working as Emelka’s chief film director, making several Heimatfilms, celebrating the beauty of the German countryside and the homespun values of rural life. The films he made in India took a comparable approach, hymns to a nation’s mythic past and natural beauty.
Osten’s fascination with India reflected a wider German obsession with a romanticized East that persisted throughout the 1920s. There was a growing interest in Buddhism, several popular novels with Indian themes, and the poet Rabindranath Tagore spoke to packed halls when he visited the country in 1921. Joe May’s The Indian Tomb was a box-office hit that year, and that film, based on a novel by Thea von Harbou, had a story not dissimilar to Shiraz, whose German subtitle translates as Tomb of a Great Love. (Richard Eichberg’s 1938 remake of The Indian Tomb appears to have been heavily influenced by Rai’s production of Shiraz, as well.) Osten wasn’t satisfied with merely creating Indian-inspired sets in German studios, however, and he jumped at Rai’s offer to make a more authentic Indian romance.
After directing his three Indian silents, Osten returned home for a few years before the Nazi takeover sent him back to India where he made more movies with Rai. He directed sixteen films for Bombay Talkies, in the early days of the formal Indian film industry, which is now the most prolific in the world. At the outset of World War II, Osten was arrested by the British colonial authorities as a German citizen and interned in India for eight months. Sadly, by the time he was released, his friend Rai had passed away. Osten returned to Germany and Emelka, which by then had become Bavaria Films, today one of Europe’s biggest film production companies.
Shiraz was the first of Osten’s Indian films to be a hit in India itself, as well as in Europe, no doubt because it combines an exquisite aesthetic with an engrossing melodramatic narrative set in a distant and safely fictionalized past. It is based on one of Pal’s own stage plays, which creates an epic romantic backstory for the monumental Taj Mahal. The hero, Shiraz, is a potter’s son who falls in love with his adopted sister Selima, a foundling. Her parentage is unknown to Shiraz’s family, but a prologue shows us that she is a princess who survived a raid on her caravan when she was still a baby. As a teenager, Selima is kidnapped and sold as a slave to the palace of Prince Khurram in Agra. Although they are separated, Shiraz remains devoted to his first love, while the Prince also falls for Selima, who reciprocates his ardor. There is more drama to come as the story unfolds, including the revelation of Selima’s royal birth, the minxy machinations of Dalia, a rival for the Prince’s love, and a terrifying threat to Shiraz’s life. In the film’s finale, Shiraz and the prince both prove their enduring love for Selima by building the Taj Mahal in her honor.
Shiraz’s location photography, shot in bright natural light, is simply astonishing. The opulent Mughal palaces (Rai’s coup was to get the Maharaja of Jaipur onboard) and the Taj Mahal itself, as well as the sweeping Indian countryside, are captured in all their glory by the film’s two cinematographers: Englishman Henry Harris (a BIF staffer who later specialized in visual effects) and German Emil Schünemann, a veteran of silent classics such as Fritz Lang’s Spione (1920) and Protazanov’s Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924). The international crew included Promode Nath as art director (for all three films in the trilogy) and production manager Victor Peers, who later worked with Hitchcock and ran Granada Television in the UK.
Rai stars as Shiraz, of course, and makes for a compelling hero, growing from infatuated youth to lonely craftsman as the film progresses, and Enakshi Rama Rau offers a memorably delicate performance as the princess he is besotted with. However, it is Seeta Devi as the nefarious love-rival Dalia with a ring full of poison who steals the show. Otherwise known as Renee Smith, this Anglo-Indian actress, here trading the sorrowfulness she brought to Prem Sanyas for a devilish smirk, appears in all three of Osten’s Indian silents. Charu Roy plays the prince, who begins as a chivalrous lover and ends up as a proud tyrant. Roy was already beginning his career a film director and made a romance in a similar vein to Shiraz in the same year, Loves of a Mughal Prince, also starring himself and Devi.
Devi’s very modern, vixenish performance is not the only startling aspect of this film. It’s a common misconception that kissing was once banned in Indian cinema. While such embraces were largely absent from the Indian screen from the 1940s until their return in the 1990s, there was no official ban, and earlier films, including Shiraz, contain some very passionate clinches. There’s plenty of violent action here, too, from the bandit raid on the caravan to an unforgettable scene in which Shiraz escapes a terrifying death by a whisker.
Shiraz remains a tribute not just to the ambition of the early Indian film industry, but its international outlook. Rai’s Bombay Talkies hired several German technicians in the 1930s and incorporated European style into its films. Here in these precious silent films you can see that first flowering—Shiraz is the most beautiful example.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by Utsav Lal