Like the other two of this silent-era triad which I’ve written about here, this Indian-German collaboration produced by Himansu Rai and directed by Franz Osten is a visual feast. Filmed outdoors on location and beautifully photographed, it’s the story of Empress Mumtaz and the Taj Mahal (based on a play by Niranjan Pal) with some creative twists and turns. As with A Throw Of Dice, Himansu Rai loses the girl to Charu Roy; but sweet-faced Seeta Devi plays villainess here instead of heroine with a relish that steals the show.
A camel caravan laden with riches and conveying a royal princess and her small daughter wends its way across the desert and comes under attack by an army of bandits.
Two members of the royal escort attempt to lead the princess and her daughter to safety, but are killed while the howdah (is it a howdah if it’s on a camel?) containing the princess is crushed by boulder-shoving dacoits. The little girl emerges from the wreckage but she and the camel are the only survivors. A traveling potter named Hasan arrives in time to see a cobra rise up next to her, and then slither away leaving her unscathed.
He picks her up and takes her home with him, where a fortune teller is busy predicting the future of his son Shiraz. Hasan asks the fortune teller to look at the little girl as well; he tells the sage about the cobra and shows him a gold amulet the girl is wearing around her neck.
Hasan names her Selima, and she grows up with Shiraz. As they reach adulthood, his affection for her turns to love. He is now working with his father as a potter, and makes beautiful birds and figurines for her as well. But alas! Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau) is seen one day by some slave-raiders, who knock Shiraz (Himansu Rai) unconscious as he tries to fight them off, and kidnap her. He awakens and realizes that in the melee her “protective” gold amulet has ended up in his hand instead.
He sets off alone across the desert after her. Selima has been taken to the marketplace in Al Kalab, where she is dressed up in fine clothes and put up for sale. The market scenes are lots of fun: dancing girls, a whirling dervish and a performing monkey, in addition to the slave auction. Shiraz arrives just as the auction is beginning and tries desperately to convince the crowd that Selima is not a slave, but he fails miserably and she is sold to the representatives of Prince Khurram (Charu Roy), heir to the throne of India.
When the new slave girls are brought before Prince Khurram, Selima refuses to prostrate herself in front of him like the others. Angry at first, the Prince is soon intrigued by her beauty and defiance. She tells him that she is free-born, and he instructs a servant to make sure that she lacks no comforts.
I am enchanted by the beautiful palace setting. Parts of it look like the Red Fort in Agra and some the Red Fort in Delhi, and it’s all very grand.
In any case, Shiraz tries to gain entrance to the palace, but is turned away by a guard. He finds a local potter and asks for a job; this exchange between the potter and his toothless wife—who disapproves of the frivolous items that Shiraz fashions out of the clay, including what looks very like a prototype of the Taj—makes me laugh and laugh.
“Light of Mine Eyes” indeed!
Back at the palace, Prince Khurram chastises a trusted courtier whose daughter Dalia is spreading rumors about her impending marriage with the Prince. The courtier in turn scolds Dalia (Seeta Devi)—but to no avail.
To her dismay, Dalia’s maidservant brings her news of Prince Khurram’s intense interest in the slave girl Selima. Shiraz manages to slip a note he has written for Selima to this same maidservant as she passes by a window in the fort walls. Prince Khurram is now romancing Selima in a garden and it’s clear that love has blossomed, although she refuses his more pressing advances gently. He informs her regretfully that he cannot marry her because the law forbids him to marry anyone not of noble birth.
Dalia reads Shiraz’s note to Selima, and fakes a pass admitting him into the palace in the hopes that he will take Selima away while the Prince is off on a scheduled trip to Delhi.
Prince Khurram bids a fond farewell to Selima, kissing her goodbye (oh! those carefree days of yore, when a kiss was just a kiss instead of the road to hell!) and we are treated to one of those grand camel-elephant-horse processions that are a hallmark of these gorgeous movies.
As Shiraz enters the palace using his pass, Dalia sends a messenger with a letter to Prince Khurram urging him to return and see what Selima is up to behind his back. Dalia’s servant lets Shiraz into the harem and shows him to Selima’s rooms. Shiraz, who has been told that Selima was in danger, is surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see her glowing and happy. Her glow fades rapidly when the Prince arrives and has her arrested.
He assembles the palace slave girls and orders Shiraz to identify the one who has helped him enter the women’s quarters or die; Shiraz refuses, although he recognizes Dalia’s servant.
YIKES! (I’ve seen that before, and once is more than enough.)
Dalia’s maidservant’s conscience pricks her, and she tells Dalia that Shiraz could have betrayed them but didn’t. Dalia—bless her little Grinch heart—doesn’t care, and is furious to discover that the pass she forged is in the hands of the Prince’s guards (Shiraz having forgotten to ask for it back). Seeta Devi is just so deliciously bad in this! She poisons the poor girl and I totally covet that poison ring.
Meanwhile, Shiraz is prepared for death by the elephant foot and chained to some sort of board while the elephant is decorated and poked at with sticks to make him mad (okay I made that last part up) (he is decorated though). Will he be stomped to death as a horrified Selima watches from her prison cell? Will Dalia’s evil machinations work? Will Selima’s royal birth be revealed in time (or at all)?
I’m guessing that since most of us know the story behind the Taj Mahal, the rest of this won’t be too much of a surprise—but if you don’t want this particular story ending revealed to you, stop reading now (is anyone actually ever able to do that?). I’m going to go all the way with this one, since it’s not that easy to find.
Dalia’s smug (though delightfully dimpled) smile is a little premature: the maid revives enough to make her way to the Prince, where she spills her poisoned guts before dying.
Shiraz’s execution is stopped in the nick of time as the elephant foot hovers over his face, and he and Selima are brought to Prince Khurram. So is Dalia, and she is banished for her sins. The Prince asks Selima whether she loves Shiraz and she says that she loves him as she always has like a brother (poor Shiraz!) but that she loves the Prince. Gracious in defeat, Shiraz hands her gold amulet over to the Prince and the palace historian is called to examine it.
He knows what it is instantly.
He recounts the story of the loss of Princess Arjumand (Selima’s mother) and the caravan. Almost everyone is overjoyed at this happy outcome, and Prince Khurram marries Selima, renaming her Mumtaz Mahal. Shiraz returns to his work as a craftsman, heartbroken—and a little bit stalker-ish.
Then the day comes when Mumtaz—now the Empress—dies in childbirth. The Emperor and all his people, including the still-lurking Shiraz, are plunged into mourning.
The grief-stricken Emperor announces that he will build the most beautiful monument to the late Empress “in all the world” and he sends out an invitation to all the craftsmen in his empire to submit their designs. Despite having by now cried himself totally blind, Shiraz sets to work. Inspired by his love, he creates the winning entry, although when he is brought before the Emperor I don’t think he feels like a winner for long.
(I love that the intertitle is in all caps for that one.) Luckily the guy wielding the red-hot pokers realizes that Shiraz is already blind, and informs the Emperor—who finally recognizes him as his late wife’s “brother”. Whew! Shiraz moves into the palace and works with the Emperor’s builders to ensure that the monument is built, and then they all live happily ever after (at least until the Emperor’s son overthrows and imprisons him, but they don’t show that part).
I do hope that someday soon a restored Shiraz will become available on dvd along with Light of Asia, to join their sister A Throw of Dice. It is just stunning in its opulent production values and beautiful photography, not to mention its importance in cinema history. And the story is a lot of fun too, with wonderful touches of sly humor. Truly it’s worth seeing just for Seeta Devi’s “Lady Dalia” alone. Many many thanks to Himansu Rai’s grandson Peter for sending me this one—if there’s anything in my sadly limited power that I can do to help get these out there for all his fans, Peter, all you have to do is ask!