Sunday, 15 April 2012

"Shiraz" with the Sabri Ensemble

Shiraz was made in India in 1928, during the silent movie era. It was the second of a trilogy of films, the result of a unique artistic partnership between German director Franz Osten and Indian actor/producer Himansu Rai. Its showing at the Purcell Room in London`s South Bank complex on Thursday 12 April was accompanied by music performed by the Sabri Ensemble; hence the title of the programme, which turned out be a truly enchanted evening!

Shiraz is yet another variant of the Taj Mahal story - an imaginative reconstruction of the historical epic. The opening sequences, though shot in black and white, are eye-catching and pulsate with excitement and possibility, reminiscent of an old-fashioned western: a horde of camel-riding bandits split into a pincer movement to attack a royal party on horseback and cause havoc. After they depart, a gentle countryman comes along and finds a crying infant, who happens to be of noble blood, lost and abandoned. He takes her home to his wife and son and gives her the name Selina. The son of the family, Shiraz, and Selina grow up closely together and he falls in love with her as she turns into a beautiful young woman. She is then kidnapped by slave-hunters and sold to Prince Khurram, destined to become the Mughal Emperor (Shah Jehan) of India, who too falls in love with and woes her. That leads to court intrigue and to a clever ploy by a jealous princess (Dalia) to smuggle Shiraz, who had been relentlessly searching for Selina, into the palace compound so that the Prince might find him and Selina together in what might be construed as a compromising situation. That does happen but Dalia`s cunning is eventually exposed, though not before the surrounding misunderstandings lead to Selina`s near banishment and Shiraz being condemned to die under an elephant`s foot, only to be reprieved at the last minute when all the mystery, including that of Selina`s provenance and trajectory, is solved. She and the Prince then do marry, with much fanfare, and live happily together but Shiraz continues to pine for her. Years pass and then Selina dies, leaving her loving husband, the Emperor, desolate and grieving. He orders a lasting monument to be built in her memory, for which the lonely and forgotten, and by then blind Shiraz`s design is chosen. When the magnificent structure is completed, the Emperor is ecstatic and calls it the Taj Mahal, but he directs the architect to be blinded so that he might never create another one of its kind. Again, the truth about Shiraz`s involvement and condition is revealed and the tale concludes with the Emperor humbly acknowledging that the Taj Mahal is a symbol of both his and Shiraz`s love for Selina.

This simple operatic plot line, woven beautifully and effortlessly through action and captions, was augmented by the musical accompaniment of the Sabri Ensemble. While the story flowed seamlessly, their performance enhanced and heightened the experience, supplying subtlety and sentiment to the silent speech, which one could only guess at, because the subtitles didn`t always transcribe all that was said exactly but rather provided the narrative thread. The music was a delightful mixture of Indian and western sounds and themes, with a range of instruments (the tabla, piano, viola, flute, sitar and tanpura percussion strings) and concentrated vocal singing, all expertly and energetically rendered by members of the ensemble during the entire show. We were thus immediately transported into the period and the setting both by what we saw on the screen and what we heard from the musicians. And so our suspension from disbelief remained complete until the end.

Shiraz was a joint German/Indian/British production, with all the acting parts played by Indian actors. In Germany it was called "Das Grabmal einer grossen Liebe" (The Tomb of a Great Love). According to a contemporaneous review of the film in the New York Times (NYT) of 12 March 1929, Rai (who played Shiraz) was an Oxford graduate, with an accomplished track record in film production, and Enakshi Rama Rao, who played Selina, was a Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Madras. The part of Dalia was played by Seeta Devi, described by the NYT as looking like a Eurasian, no doubt because of her sharp features and lighter complexion, probably a novelty to the NYT, which also informed its readers that they could "learn of the Hindu customs of past ages” from the film, presumably because its entire cast was Hindu! The role of the Emperor was played by Charu Roy. All the acting (including that of the minor characters) was superbly nuanced and assured. Equally, the camerawork graphically conveyed the atmosphere and beauty of the desert scenery and the palace and its grounds, notwithstanding the absence of colour!

Shiraz, then, is undoubtedly a film classic, though regrettably not as well known as it should be, even if at the time it did travel far across the globe judging by the NYT review. It now does the rounds of international film festivals, such as San Francisco in 2002 and Sydney in 2003. The print shown at the South Bank was extremely well preserved, without jerky movements or any discernible editing cuts. One can only hope that it will endure and be shown around the world for many more years to come.

(With thanks to Dr Asma Sayed of the University of Edmonton, Canada, for drawing my attention to the NYT review).

(c) 2012
Surey England