When I discuss the golden era of silent film with friends, many adjectives come to mind that describe the movies made in this period. What words can I use, I think to myself? Is it ‘timeless’? ‘Beautiful’? ‘Masterful’? All these adjectives imply that every silent film is perfect and pure cinema; that they are untouchable even. Franz Osten’s 1928 Indian romance, Shiraz, is a film that one could call “weaker” outside the adjectives your reviewer just invoked. Nonetheless, Osten’s tender direction guides the film through a three-way relationship, and how this group of people gave birth to one of the most iconic landmarks in the world, the Taj Mahal.
However, ‘Shiraz’ isn’t only a sweeping romance used to tug at the audience’s heartstrings. The opening ten-minutes detail a ferocious raid between bandits and loyal guards of a rich family. The only person left standing is a small princess, she is left visibly distraught that these barbaric circumstances taken away her family. A local from a nearby village takes her under his wing and blesses her with the name of Selima. Two decades pass and Shiraz, a potter’s son, is swept off his feet by Selima’s beauty. Tragically, their warm relationship is short-lived. Vicious slave traders kidnap Selima and sell her off to the wealthy Prince Khurram in a forced marriage. The royal takes his time with Selima, but he is far from a bad apple. He is patient and kind to his future Princess, but the ceremony will shatter the heart of Selima’s first love, Shiraz.
If Osten can prove anything at all with Shiraz, he is confident in portraying the culture of India without stooping to racist stereotypes. Osten was one of the few German directors working in the Hindi film industry in the 1920’s, and he had cast thousands upon thousands of natives to appear in his epics. He is faithful to the production design too; saying Shiraz is beautifully made would be an understatement. The marble architecture of the sets that surround Selima, the Prince, and Shiraz perfectly encapsulates the situation. Osten’s passion to create an authentic atmosphere for the audience to breathe in is commendable, and that’s one of the few strengths that ‘Shiraz: A Romance of India’ has got up its sleeve.
However you look at Shiraz though, one has to suspend their disbelief to get the most from the film. It’s hard to take it at face value that Selima would so easily fall in love with the Prince, despite her horrific past. Selima has been with Shiraz up until this point, so how can her leap in logic be plausible to the audience? A common way around this plot-hole is to accept that Selima has a tremendous amount of guilt; she is a damsel in distress after all. Notwithstanding that slave traders kidnapped her, she talks openly to a maid about her first love. The feeling will never go away for her, but she is aware that through no fault of her own, the wealthy force Selima to betray Shiraz – Osten is making us aware of the tragic consequences for both parties.
The final act is tender but painful, and it solely proves that the Prince is not a villain who splits up the couple for good. In a logical and equally heartfelt decision, Prince Khurram instructs Shiraz to build a marble mausoleum for Selima. All three of the leads’ lives are therefore intertwined by the very creation of the structure. The Taj Mahal stands in memory for all three people, the royal, his princess, and the redeemed outsider. The nature of the ending is lovely; it brings a warm smile to anyone who has a devoted appreciation to silent cinema. Shiraz: A Romance of India’s strength lies in this bittersweet tying-of-the-knot; the story has come full circle. I cannot think of a more satisfying way to end such a grand film.