Sunday, 15 October 2017

Hurray for Bollywood! Shiraz (1928), with Anoushka Shankar, Barbican, London Film Festival Archive Gala

Tonight put the “gee” into Gala: a sumptuous display of silent film, Indian-style, with an extraordinary live score and a packed Barbican: thousands gathered in a silent cathedral paying rapt attention to Anoushka Shankar’s musicality and the birth of Bollywood!

Reviewing this film in the New York Times in October 1928, John MacCormac was onto something: “The Indian market… is well worth studying. Its surface has so far been barely scratched. There are only 300 picture theatres for a teeming population of some 300,000,000… When India's millions really begin to go to picture houses many new film fortunes will be made.”

Take a belated bow John, you got it in one. He described Shiraz as the best film to emerge from the sub-content so far but sadly we don’t have much to compare it with, as the BFI’s Robin Baker pointed out in his introduction, so few Indian silent films survive. This was the second of three enchanting films produced by Himansu Rai and directed by Frank Osten: Light of Asia (1926) was first and  A Throw of Dice (1929) the last. They pointed the way forward by incorporating Indian myth, style and imagination in a medium perfectly suited to the country's flamboyant traditions of story-telling.

More than brotherly love... Enakshi Rama Rau and Himansu Rai
The charismatic and instantly-likeable Rai also acted in all three, here as the titular lead, as does the mesmerising Seeta Devi who gets the chance to play the bad girl and outshines the lead Enakshi Rama Rau with a fiercely-nuanced performance utilising the most expressive eyes in Agra…

Tonight’s LFF Archive Gala saw the premier of a hugely-impressive restoration alongside a new score from sitar-playing royalty Anoushka Shankar who provided compelling and complex input of her own with a tonally-varied music that mixed Eastern and Western style and instrumentation with old and modern flavours.

This may have been Anoushka’s first score but she aced it with composition that responded to the story strands with subtlety, restraint and mind-boggling attention to detail. It must be tempting to overplay your musical ideas and compromise narrative direction especially with an amplified band but Ms Shankar adopted an holistic approach that paid full respect to her silent partner. Osten and Rai couldn’t have wished for a better collaborator.

Seeta Devi plotting...
Anoushka played sitar and around her was a whirl of sound with traditional percussionists Sanju Sahai and Pirashanna Thevarajah on her left along with Ravichandra Kulur on bansuri flute then modern/western tones to her right: Idris Rahman, clarinet, Preetha Narayanan, violin, Danny Keane cello and piano (you had to be there!) and Christopher Kemsley on harmonium, moog and the kitchen sink. The players were as tight as a tabla and bang on with a mix of score, improvisation and the odd found sound… a performance of character that would make for an enthralling concert on its own and, indeed, it did take me a while to merge score and screen but the alchemy required to turn music and movie into magic was achieved and this was one of the best LFF Galas I’ve seen.

The restoration was specially commissioned to mark the UK-India Year of Culture 2017 and the 70th anniversary of independence. It was based on a combination of the BFI’s own camera negative as well as a positive made in the 1940s… Robin Baker talked us through the restoration process and, as with so many of these projects, pointed out that the process – frame-by-frame – took longer than the original production.

The film was worth it and lifted by the music and the occasion, it has a grandeur and style that makes it the strongest of those three collaborations – although I’d like to see Anoushka have a go at A Throw of Dice!

It's tough being the Prince
Shiraz starts off as it means to go on with an impressive massed attack on a royal convoy in which a young princess is one of the few survivors. She is rescued from heat and cobras by a passing potter, Kasim (Profulla Kumar) who brings her up as one of his own and calls her Selima. His son, Shiraz, grows to worship his sister and by the time they are both of age he has a more than brotherly crush on her.

Shiraz (now Himansu Rai) and Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau) encounter a group of salve raiders who succeed in kidnapping the young woman and take off with her brother in hopeless pursuit. She is sold into slavery to the Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) who takes a special interest in this new acquisition with a mind of its own.

In an interview about the score, Anoushka Shankar makes an interesting point about the sexual politics of the film which, even though it focuses on absolute male power still has time for the Prince to say: ‘You know I have the power to take what I will?’ and Selima to smile back and ‘But you don’t have the power to take my love’. Love freely given is a higher prize than anything taken by might alone.

While the Prince charms Selima, his nominal intended, Dalia (Seeta Devi) schemes to get rid of the competition by luring Shiraz into committing treason. The poor man has been sticking close to his love over her years of “service” and jumps at the chance to rescue her… Yet, as he is reunited with Selima, the Prince – having been tipped off by devious Dalia – returns and catches them.

Enakshi Rama Rau and Charu Roy
So far, so fairy tale but can Shiraz explain this all away and escape certain death by elephant foot? And what has all of this got to do with the building of the Taj Mahal? The answer is everything… Amidst the brutality of seventeenth century absolutism there is a respect and need for love across all boundaries.

The film, as the building, is a monument to our need to aim higher and, together with this music, in this place and with this crowd, it was an absolute triumph. There are times when you can almost sense an audience “glowing”, with smiling faces all round and after-show chatter conducted in uplifted tones and this was one of those occasions. Bravo BFI, Barbican, Anoushka Shankar, London Film Festival and all those involved!

This is not the end for Shiraz though as the movie, Ms Shankar and the band are touring with dates in Europe, India and Australia. Further details are on the Anoushka Shankar website.

Seeta hopes she'll be a goody in Rai and Osten's next film...


  1. What a terrific write up! I am sincerely hoping this travels across the pond.

    1. Hopefully the tour will grow and they won't stop in Australia! Thank you for reading! Best wishes, Paul