Around three centuries ago, a very young Princess was being escorted across the Persian desert by a camel train, moving north from her home in India to a new place of residence, when calamity struck: a horde of slave-trading bandits descended on the party and slaughtered a great number of them. The Princess was almost crushed by one of the rocks catapulted at the travellers, but escaped death to be captured by her attackers, whereupon she was adopted by the desert people, and became like a sister to Shiraz, who like his tribe had no idea of her origins. However, as she grew up, there was fresh turmoil to counter: could Shiraz's love for her save Selima, as she was now called?
Himansu Rai was an important figure in Indian cinema, credited with modernising it and bringing it into the talking pictures era, and was fond of putting himself in his own movies as the leading man; he was in charge, so why not? Almost all the silent movies from the subcontinent have been lost, destroyed or have deteriorated, far more than many nations' silent archive, yet as Rai was a pivotal character perhaps that was why his work was more likely to be preserved: Shiraz, where he took the protagonist's role, was doubly interesting as it was shot in actual locations around India, including the palaces and notable buildings he had access to.
The story of Rai was a positive one for the Indian film industry, or at least it was until the Second World War broke out and his German colleagues fell foul of the ruling British, ruining his studio, sending him into a mental breakdown and eventually his death not long after his carefully cultivated empire was broken apart. Another reason why it was important to continue to watch his projects, the ones that survived, because it would be even more tragic if all his work had been forgotten - Bollywood owed a debt to what he started and his vision for an Indian film business to rival the other centres of film production across the globe.
He got his wish, even if it was too late for him to capitalise on it, but what of Shiraz, possibly his most famous film, was it actually worth seeing for more reasons than its historical value and interest? The answer was a guarded yes, as aside from a rare glimpse of the country during a century that would see huge upheavals for its population in a period that was not often recorded (or preserved) on film, you were offered a sweeping epic with what looked like a cast of thousands, thousands of extras at any rate, and a love story that purported to tell the tale of how the Taj Mahal, that tomb that became so emblematic of India, was created and the reasons why it was. It is Selima who the building is a tribute to, and this film served up a backstory that may or may not have been entirely accurate.
Rai, working with German director Franz Osten and a British studio, though otherwise this was an Indian effort through and through, gave himself the most to do in front of the camera as far as emoting went, going all out to wring the tears from the contemporary audience. The point of the melodrama was that life was cruel, and even love, which should have offered succour, could be the source of much misery, though as it was based in affection and romance this was far more acceptable than outright wickedness. Selima is sold into slavery and ends up at the palace of the Emperor (Charu Roy) who falls for her as all the while Shiraz tries to get her back; oddly, Enakasha Rama Rao, the star playing the object of these men's affection (in one of three films she made) was no great beauty, looking rather masculine for what was supposed to be the epitome of feminine pulchritude, especially when there were more attractive women in the cast. Maybe she had a great personality. Shiraz was a wallow in swooning anguish to an extent, but again, historically captivating.
[Those features on the BFI special edition Blu-ray:
Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
Restoration Demonstration (2017, 3 mins)
Temples of India (1938, Hans M Nieter, 10 mins): Indian travelogue featuring beautiful colour footage of the Taj Mahal shot by Jack Cardiff
Musical Instruments of India (1944, 12 mins): public information film made by the Government of India to promote Indian arts and culture
Illustrated booklet with essays by Bryony Dixon, Simon Broughton and Gautam Chintamani, and full film credits.]