Shiraz the film

Anoushka Shankar’s Music Brings To Life A 1928 Silent Film

If we told you there’s a screening of a 1928 silent movie, would you be interested in watching it? Let us give you some reasons to be excited about it before you answer that! 

Shiraz the film
Courtesy BFI

Shiraz: A Romance of India imagines the story of the events leading to the construction of India’s most iconic building, the Taj Mahal. It creates the character of Shiraz, the building’s designer, who falls in love with Selima. This young girl eventually becomes the princess who inspired the construction of Taj Mahal.

An Indian-British-German co-production, the silent film was shot entirely on-location in Agra about 90 years ago with all Indian performers. This epic film has been brought back to life by the British Film Institute, which has restored it as a part of the UK-India Year of Culture 2017.

The Restoration Process

“It has taken thousands of hours for BFI National Archive to restore and transform a silent film classic, ensuring that it is safely preserved for future generations. Very few silent films survive, which makes Shiraz all the more important and precious,” says Robin Baker, BFI Head Curator.

Shiraz the film
Robin Baker, Hear Curator, British Film Institute; Alan Gemmell OBE, Director British Council India; Anoushka Shankar, British Indian Sitar Player; Sir Dominic Anthony Gerard Asquith KCMG, British High Commissioner to the Republic of India

The process of restoration was a tough one especially with no record being found of its musical score. That’s where Grammy-nominated sitar player Anoushka Shankar came into the picture. What makes it even more special is the fact that this is Shankar’s first film score. Did that make her nervous? “The first performance in a show is always terrifying even today. But playing for a film is a different experience all together. It was definitely a very intense experience,” shares Anoushka.

It was all the more challenging because of the amount of music required. “For a film with dialogues, say a 90-minute one, you require 40 minutes of music or less, whereas for a silent film one’s creating a full score to the entire film,” she adds. “The film is obviously in 2D, but watching it silent, without any sound, is like watching something 3D crushed into two dimensions. Music brings it to life, fills in that third dimension and helps you connect with the film,” says the British Indian sitar player.

What was her first impression of the film? “I was thoroughly amazed. To think of a film made 90 years ago but still having emotions you can relate to is moving. The themes are the same: people looking for love & happiness, destiny… ” And one particular moment that made her gasp was the kiss between Selima and the Moghul prince. One wouldn’t expect that in a 1928 film, after all.

About the Music

Anoushka says she was very careful of the music being non-repetitive. Also, she was aware of the musical choices that needed to be made. “I could try and be faithful to the period it was set in (17th century), the period it was made in (20th century), or the period I am writing in today (21st century),” she explains. “And in the end, it’s a mixture of all those things.”

The soundtrack is a mixture of Indian and Western instruments — sitar, bansuri and varied Indian percussion to provide authenticity, and violin, clarinet, cello and piano to add depth and breath.

The India Tour

The British Council and The BFI National Archive are bringing the film, with Shankar’s live performance, to Hyderabad, Kolkata, New Delhi and Mumbai from November 1-5. Tickets for live score screenings can be bought on BookMyShow.


Purva is the co-founder of Blue Sky Dreamers. A journalist with 11 years of experience, she also freelances as a content writer & editor.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: