At a time when the Taj Mahal is making news all over again, Shiraz , Franz Osten’s 1929 silent film on the monument of love, finds its way back to screen. Restored by the British Film Institute, the film, whose tagline ‘A Romance of India’ resonates with the pluralistic ethos of India, will be screened this Saturday at the Siri Fort Auditorium with a specially commissioned score, performed by an eight-piece ensemble of players led by Anoushka Shankar.
Robin Baker, BFI head curator, says it was the announcement of India-UK Year of Culture 2017 that set the ball rolling. “Every year we restore one silent film. Given that this film marks the cultural relationship between India and the UK and given that how few Indian silent films are left, Shiraz was the right choice. There are only 20 Indian silent films that exist and most of them are in the form of fragments. It is one of the rare cases where the whole film existed and we had the negative (print) with us.”
Based on a play by playwright Niranjan Pal, the romanticised version of the construction of the iconic monument is a blend of eastern and western sensibilities. “It is a real mix. The film was conceived by Indians in London. Niranjan Pal was working with Himansu Rai since 1922 when Pal’s play Goddess opened at the West End with Himansu Rai as the leading star.” It was the first Indian play to achieve the feat. “Niranjan and Himansu had a desire to tell a very Indian story not just for Indian audience but also for a global audience as well.” They along with German director Franz Osten, the three later became the pillars of Bombay Talkies, started talking about how could they collaborate in cinema. “It was a unique collaboration between Europeans and Indians. They made three silent films together,” notes Baker during a conversation at the British Council in New Delhi.
Shiraz had a German director, a British cinematographer (Henry Harris), British assistant director, Indian writer and a production designer. The cast was drawn from India. Rai plays the humble potter Shiraz. He is supported by Enakshi Rama Rau as Selima/Mumtaz Mahal and Charu Roy as prince Khurram/Shah Jahan. But it is the Anglo Indian actor Reene Smith known by her screen name Seeta Devi who steals the show as the wily courtesan Dalia. Seeta Devi was the heroine of The Light of Asia and A Throw of Dice, the two other films that marked the partnership of Rai and Osten.
Blob by blob
Talking about the process of restoration, Baker calls it “very difficult.” “I can’t say it is the hardest restoration that we have done. That said it took us 18 months. As I have said before, it took more time to restore than making it. In a film which is 90 years old, there is so much damage.” Baker informs that the film is with BFI since 1942. “And a report tells us that when the negative first came to BFI, decomposition had already set in. This is how volatile and fragile a film is. India has the worst climate for film preservation. Films have to be kept very cool and very dry. When you have humidity and heat, it plays havoc with the film. There are real challenges and there is no magic button,” holds Baker.
He presumes that the negative was sent back to London as soon as it was shot. “I assume that it was processed in London. There is a copy at National Film Archives of India but we discovered that it came from our copy. The last thing we wanted was to make it appear like a bad Photoshopped version of the original.” He talks about shrinking of film over time, the scratches that appeared on the frames of the epic battle scene and black snow balls that emerged because of matting. “Each one had to be removed blob by blob,” relates Baker.
Apart from depicting the complex nature of love, what makes Shiraz stand out is the fact that the film was shot outdoors on location – a rarity in the 1920s. “Most of the films were shot in studios those days. It never really feels authentic now. The outdoor setting makes the film feel lot less dated. Shooting in India also has its advantage. In the UK, light is not that great but when you are shooting in Agra, it looks so beautifully lit.”
One of the problems of restoring silent films, says Baker, is that the scores of these these films have not survived. “We don’t know what music played with it when it was released. It is believed that the scores were written for them. At times, distributors would suggest music.” So restoration process, gave the team a creative opportunity to create to music for Shiraz and Anoushka Shankar was roped in. “What I love about Anoushka’s work is that the composition feels right for the 1920s and it feels right for 17th Century as well. It transcends time. It is not a musical wallpaper; it absolutely heightens the drama. There is a great sequence where one of the characters is sentenced to death by having his head crushed by an elephant. The way she builds tension in that scene is amazing. Two weeks ago when it was screened the Barbican, 2000 people gasped at the moment.”
As for the romance, Baker points out that it is not an easy ‘they meet and they fall in love’ kind of story. “It is about how Shah Jahan had to earn Mumtaz’s love. And the way Anoushka has created romantic music underlines that kind of complexity.”
The film’s passionate kisses are surprising many. “The cinema of 1920s was far more promiscuous and sensuous than what it became in the 1930s. People who don’t watch 1920s films, no matter where they come from, are quite surprised by the level of sensuality. This film is famous for two kisses. One of them is seven second long, which is quite a long kiss.”
The recent debate on the origin of Taj Mahal might help the film. “It is completely coincidental,” says Baker. “I kind of hope that it gives people a perspective on Indian cultural heritage. It also gives us an opportunity to talk about Indian film heritage and remind people of how little is left of those early films.”
Baker says there is a renewed interest in Indian classics and there is an English audience who would love to watch great classics of 40s and 50s. But there are so few that could be shown in cinema halls. “We would love to show films like Awaara and Mother India looking fantastic. I was delighted when Pyaasa was restored. I would like to see some of the key films of Guru Dutt restored. These are classics of world cinema and not just classics of Indian cinema.” But weren’t they described as song and dance sagas till some years back? Baker agrees they are being seen in a new light. “Twenty years ago, some of these films were dubbed as camp. Now the audience are appreciating the different aesthetics of them,” sums up Baker.