A still from Shiraz: A Romance of India
A still from Shiraz: A Romance of India. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Asian Art.

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Got a case of green screen fatigue? The National Museum of Asian Art has the perfect antidote.

On April 16, the museum will host a free screening of Shiraz: A Romance of India, a 1929 silent tale of love and loss that culminates in the creation of the Taj Mahal. Unlike 1920s silents like The Sheik or The Thief of Bagdad, which used Hollywood sets to create fictional, orientalist depictions of the East, Shiraz was shot entirely in India with an entirely Indian cast. The result is a mesmerizing tale of romance and national pride that stands the test of time.

The film, spectacularly restored by the British Film Institute in 4K resolution, comes to the Freer Gallery of Art as part of the museum’s Movie/Music Matchups series. Utsav Lal, an Indian pianist who puts a modern twist on traditional raga music, will provide live accompaniment.

Shiraz is one of the numerous collaborations between German director Franz Osten and Indian cinema pioneer Himanshu Rai, the film’s star and leading producer. Shot in and around Jaipur, the film is a fictional imagining of the Taj Mahal’s origin story.

That story begins in the 16th century, with an opulent caravan crossing the Persian desert. The caravan’s “most precious burden,” an elegant title card tells the audience, is a baby princess. In a grandiose fight sequence, bandits on horseback descend upon the camel-led caravan. When Hasan, a traveling potter, stumbles upon the bloody scene, he is only able to retrieve the young princess.

He brings her back to his village, where his young son, Shiraz, is having his fortune told. “For this child,” a soothsayer tells his family, “great things will come from the desert—love, sorrow, and fame immortal.”

So begins the relationship between Shiraz (portrayed as an adult by Rai) and Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau), which lies somewhere between romance and sibling love. So when Selima is captured by slave traders and sold into the harem of a crown prince (Charu Roy), Shiraz takes it upon himself to set off on horseback and save her. It’s a damsel-in-distress story all ready to go. Except, when Shiraz arrives, it turns out that Selima isn’t in distress at all.

This epic tale of unrequited love is also an epic showcase of craftsmanship. From the modest village where Shiraz resides to the lavish grounds of Crown Prince Shah Jahan (named for the real-life emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal), Shiraz offers a front-row seat to Rajasthan’s glorious architecture, awe-inspiring landscapes, and inhabitants—human and animal alike. According to a 1929 review of Shiraz in the New York Times, 50,000 actors, 300 camels, and seven elephants were enlisted for the film’s production. (One elephant is a scene-stealer as a hangman, enlisted to kill a captured man with a stomp.)

Although it features plenty of gripping action sequences, Shiraz climaxes with something much more mundane: a design competition held by the kingdom. But the stakes are high as ever: Shah Jahan wants to erect the perfect monument to the woman he loved, one that captures “her nobility—her purity.” 

The competition turns two men who were once enemies into partners, bonded by their unconditional love for the same woman. It also serves as the genesis for a beautiful Indian landmark—a fitting end for Shiraz, which is a stunning landmark of Indian culture in its own right.

Shiraz: A Romance of India screens on April 16 at 2 p.m. at the Freer Gallery of Art. Free; tickets required. asia.si.edu.