Toby Miller: SHIRAZ is an historical epic that gradually reveals itself, after a fashion, to be a true story with lots of
elaborations and falsehood built into it. Could you explain a little about this extraordinary film?
Eleanor Halsall: Without spoiling the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet, SHIRAZ is a classical tale of unrequited love between a potter’s son, Shiraz, who’s played by Himansu Rai, and Selima, who’s played by Enakashi Rama Rao. The two children grow up together and as they come of age Shiraz falls in love with her. However, she’s taken captive and sold as a slave, and Shiraz follows, trying to save her. But she’s bought by an agent of the Shah who falls in love with her and makes her one of his wives. There are lots of twists long the way, and especially for those who haven’t seen it, it makes for an interesting story.
TM: What was the working relationship between Franz Osten, the director from Germany, and Indian cinema?
EH: Well, first of all the relationship between Osten and India began with Himansu Rai and [playwright and screenwriter] Niranjan Pal, and they travelled to Munich in late 1924. They were both Bengalis who met when they were studying in London. These were sons of wealthy, high caste families who had completed degrees back in India and had been sent to London to finalise their training. So Rai was training as a barrister, and Pal was training as a medic. Then they decided they wanted to get involved in films, and they actually went to visit Emelka, the studio in Munich. So the deal was that Rai and Pal would raise funding from India, which they duly did – and they agreed with Emelka that the Germans would provide technical support. And this came in the form of Osten. Now Osten was Emelka’s lead director at the time, and there was a strong relationship between the two, because they went on to work together.
TM: SHIRAZ and the other films in this Franz Osten partnership used Indian talent as actors, and eventually some
behind the camera. Were they unintentionally empowering early Indian cinema?
EH: In silent films made by Rai and Osten, the Indian actors were used exclusively for Indian characters; and the technical side was mostly handled by the Germans. And this did change when Rai established the Bombay Talkies studio in 1934. He then invited Osten and three other German filmmakers to come and work in Bombay, and to train Indians to take up the technical roles. Now at the time, Bombay Talkies was being criticised by some Indians in the film industry because they were arguing that Indian cinema should be a home-grown industry without the intervention of foreigners. In spite of this criticism, though, it’s clear that Rai intended to produce films that would strengthen the status of Indian cinema, and raise its presence as worthy of attracting middle class audiences.
TM: Do you think SHIRAZ offers a blend of two storytelling traditions? There’s melodrama, popular in Hindi storytelling even then, but there’s a realism in the performance and technique. Osten was a portrait photographer before he became a film director, so there’s a realism there that’s more akin to European film.
EH: SHIRAZ departs from the earlier style that was used on LIGHT OF ASIA, and although Osten directed both films I would argue that the involvement of veteran cinematographer Emil Schunemann, who was provided for those two films, for SHIRAZ and A THROW OF DICE, I think he was also responsible for introducing a different aesthetic: the imagery is stronger. And Rai himself had gained more experience in the three years since making the first film. And of course we shouldn’t forget the involvement of British instructional pictures, so… we had an infusion of styles from different cultural traditions, and I think as far as I’m concerned, this gives the film a fairly unique status!
See SHIRAZ on Sunday 22 October at 15.00 at Emmanuel College – with live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney.