Tag Archives: Indian cinema

LFF review: Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928) with Anoushka Shankar

Saturday night’s London Film Festival Archive Gala was an extraordinary experience. Regularly a highlight of the silent film year, previous galas have showcased glistening restorations of old and faded movies paired with fresh scores of mostly excellent quality. This year’s event was an exercise in enchanted restoration – with makeover and music transforming a simple film into something entirely wonderful.

Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

Shiraz: A Romance of India was an Indian/British/German co-production from the late silent era. You might know two more films by the director Franz Osten: A Throw of Dice and Light of Asia. Shiraz is a shamelessly romantic and fairly romanticised, telling of the love affair honoured by one the most beautiful mausoleum in the world, the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

Shiraz (Himansu Rai, who also produced the film) is a humble, but exceptionally talented potter, who has a deep love for his adopted sister Selima. When Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau) grows up, she is sold as a slave into the royal court and they are separated. What’s more, a love affair slowly begins to spark between Selima and Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) … Meanwhile, general’s daughter Dalia (Seeta Devi) is plotting to get her own hands on the prince.

Himansu Rai (Shiraz) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Himansu Rai (Shiraz) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

The story may seem paper-thin, but it has a beautiful surface. The romantic leads are very sweet, with the halting love story between Selima and the Prince always believable and Devi delightfully minxy. The location backdrops of the mountains and palaces are ravishing – a testament to the art direction of Promode Nath and cinematography by Henry Harris and Emil Schünemann that makes the most of natural light.

Seeta Devi (Dalia) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Seeta Devi (Dalia) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

The action sequence that opens the film, with a caravan raided on its way across the desert, leaving the baby Selima behind, is brilliantly staged. Frequent cuts to her nurse anxiously peeking out at the incoming danger ramp up the tension.There are moments of violence elsewhere too, notably two gruesome threats lobbied at Shiraz himself – the “elephant’s foot” moment caused many in the audience to audibly gasp, and understandably so. It’s a fairly dark story, in truth, with poison, plotting, torture, vengeance, heartbreak and loss on the cards for our group of amorous young things. If you know anything about Indian film, you may be surprised that the lovers share a passionate clinch – and they do.

 

 

Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) and Charu Roy (Prince Khurram, later Shah Jahan) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) and Charu Roy (Prince Khurram, later Shah Jahan) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

With such a beautiful film, the restoration work has its chance to shine. Working from an original copy of the film, the BFI has removed scratches, blotches, tremors and flickers, leaving Shiraz unblemished, stable and luminous. Watching the film, simply gazing at it, was a pure pleasure. A fairytale such as this repays the polish.

Himansu Rai (Shiraz) and Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Himansu Rai (Shiraz) and Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

Performing alongside the film, however, was an ensemble led by Anoushka Shankar playing a sensational new score that she had composed for the film. At this gala, the standing ovation was no mere matter of politeness. Multilayered, pulsing with energy, weaving a selection of Indian and European instruments together with, I think, a foley track, Shankar’s score invigorated the film and hinted at its own “fusion” history as a co-production. Shankar’s sitar playing alone was pretty exceptional, but the score overall was one of the best I have ever heard by a non-specialist.

Anoushka Shankar accompanies Shiraz: A Romance of India at the BFI London Film Festival Archive Gala. Credit: Darren Brade Photography
Anoushka Shankar accompanies Shiraz: A Romance of India at the BFI London Film Festival Archive Gala. Credit: Darren Brade Photography

After its triumphant premiere in London, we can expect to see Shiraz in cinemas and on Blu-ray in January 2018 – I’ll bring you more news on that when I have it. Plus you can catch it, with piano accompaniment by John Sweeney, at the Cambridge Film Festival this month. 

The BFI has more ambitious plans for Shiraz though, and both film and score will be embarking on a short Indian tour in November, in partnership with the British Council:

  • 1 November: Hyderabad International Convention Centre, Hyderabad
  • 3 November: Kala Mandir, Kolkata
  • 4 November: Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi
  • 5 November: Sri Shanmukhananda Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi Auditorium , Mumbai
Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
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Two-for-one special offer on tickets to India on Film at BFI Southbank

The BFI’s mega India on Film season kicks off this month and continues all year. The season culminates (for us early cinephiles at least) in this year’s London Film Festival Archive Gala, which will be the sumptuous silent drama Shiraz (1928), at the Barbican on 14 October 2017, beautifully restored with a brand-new score by Anoushka Shankar.

But before all that, there are plenty of films to be getting on with, and if you’d like to take advantage of a two-for-one ticket offer for the films showing at BFI Southbank in the India on Film season, step this way …

Simply quote INDIA241 when booking on line, in person or over the phone to claim the offer. Only valid for all films and events in the BFI’s India On Film season in 2017.

Please note that this ticket offer does NOT include the Archive Gala.

The first silent morsels that caught my eye in the season are a couple of talks on Saturday 20 May 2017:

The first of those talks concludes with a screening of Raja Harishchandra – a rarely seen film from 1913, and the earliest extant Indian movie. To find out a little more about the making of this film, and early Indian cinema in general, why not read a little feature I wrote for the Guardian in 2013, to mark the Centenary of Bollywood’?

If you can’t make it to BFI Southbank this year, look out for screenings of Shiraz around the country after the Archive Gala, and check out the India on Film collection on BFI Player.

 

Shiraz and A Throw of Dice, Watermans Arts Centre, 23 & 24 July 2011

Shiraz (1928)
Shiraz (1928)

Hopefully the BFI members among you have entered the ballot for Light of Asia tickets – fingers crossed you get them, too. But there is also a chance to catch director Franz Osten’s two other collaborations with screenwriter Niranjan Pal in the mini-season curated by the South Asian Cinema Foundation. The Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford, Middlesex will be showing Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1929) at the end of the month, no ballot necessary.

I’m very fond of the Watermans, so I’m happy to say that they have told me they will be screening 35mm prints of both films, but I’m still waiting to hear about any potential musical accompaniment. I’ll update this post when I know more. But either way, these are classics of Indian cinema, forming a trilogy with Light of Asia. Shiraz tells the love story behind the construction of the Taj Mahal and A Throw of Dice is another romance, taken from an episode in the Mahabarata in which two kings gamble to win the love of a young woman. You may remember a few years back that the composer Nitin Sawhney wrote a new soundtrack for a restoration of A Throw of Dice, which was released theatrically.

Shiraz screens at the Watermans Arts Centre at 4.30pm on Saturday 23 July and A Throw of Dice is on Sunday 24 July at 7.15pm. Tickets cost £10 or less for concessions or members, and are available here.

Light of Asia and Turksib with live scores at BFI Southbank, August 2011

Light of Asia (1925)
Light of Asia (1925)

You live in London and you love silent film, so you’re probably a member of the BFI. Well, I hope so, because there are two silent film screenings coming up in August – one that is members-only and another that almost is.

First, on 4 August, is Turksib (1929), a Soviet documentary about efforts to build a railway through Central Asia. The name Turksib stands for the Turkestan-Siberian railway, which starts near Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and joins the Trans-Siberian railway in Novosibirsk, Russia. If you enjoyed Salt for Svanetia during the BFI’s recent Soviet silents season, this screening has your name all over it. The August screening will feature a live musical score by Guy Bartell of the electronica band Bronnt Industries Kapital, which previously soundtracked the silent witchcraft documentary Häxan. Their most recent album was described by a German magazine this way: “As if Joy Division, Can and The Human League were locked in a room together.” I think that means we can expect something pretty dark and moody but with a disco beat. Works for me.

Here’s a video clip of Turksib, showing how the railways changes the landscape, as a taster.

Turksib is a BFI Members Exclusive event. So, if you’re a member, log on the BFI Members page and you can enter a ballot for tickets. If you’re successful, your first ticket is free and the second is member guest price, ie £8. The ballot is open now, and closes at 8.30pm on 8 July. Turksib screens at 6.30pm on Thursday 4 August at NFT1, but please note that there will be reduced seating due to to refurbishment work.

A few days later, the new, improved NFT1 will host a screening of Franz Osten’s Light of Asia (1925). This event is in partnership with the South Asian Cinema Foundation and is part of a celebration of the film’s screenwriter Niranjan Pal. Screenings of the other two films he made with Osten, Shiraz and A Throw of Dice, as well as A Gentleman of Paris, will be held at the Watermans Arts Centre in July. Light of Asia is the first of the trilogy, and tells the story of the life of the Buddha and how he renounced his worldly wealth in favour of enlightenment. It’s an epic film, shot on location in Rajasthan with hordes of extras. Live musical accompaniment come in the form of “an original score composed by Pandit Vishwa Prakash and performed by tabla maestro Sri Sanju Sahai, sitarist/vocalist Debipriya Sircar, flautist Jonathan Lawrence and many others.” The SACF will provide an illustrated introduction before the film.

This short video explains more about the South Asian Cinema Foundation’s Niranjan Pal project, and the film itself:

Light of Asia is a BFI Members Ballot event. So, if you’re a member, log on the BFI Members page and you can enter a ballot for tickets. Each member can enter the ballot for two full-price tickets. The ballot is open now, and closes at 8.30pm on 8 July. Any remaining tickets will then go on general sale. Light of Asia screens at 2pm on Saturday 6 August at NFT1.

Shiraz with the Sabri Ensemble at the Arts Depot, 5 February

Shiraz (1928)
Shiraz (1928)

The Arts Depot in North Finchley is a relatively new venue (it opened in 2004), but one with a packed schedule of performances and exhibitions. Their screening of Shiraz (1928) on Saturday night is a welcome addition to the silent film scene in London. Shiraz is an Indian silent film directed by Franz Osten and is the second part of a trilogy. The first film in the series, The Light of Asia, tells the story of the life of Buddha and the final part, A Throw of the Dice, dramatises episodes from the epic Mahabarata. Shiraz is a historical romance, based on the story behind the building of the Taj Mahal.

Music for this screening will be provided by the Sabri Ensemble, a world music group combining influences from South Asian, Latin American, jazz and western classical music,  centred on Sarvar Sabri’s tabla playing. The Shiraz score, written by Sarvar Sabri, was first commissioned by the Lichfield Festival and has been performed at venues across the country over the past year.

Shiraz will be screened at 7.30pm on Saturday 5 February at the Pentland Theatre in the Arts Depot, North Finchley. Tickets are £16 or £14 for concessions, and they’re available here.