Saturday, May 14, 2005

Filming life beyond terror

“Even Iran makes films! I did not know that.” Many persons, when first introduced to Iranian cinema, react that way. Who would think of films, and great ones at that, from one of the three coordinates of the “Axis of Evil” – most commonly associated with suppression of women, Islamic fundamentalism and conservatism and, more recently, the alleged capability to produce nuclear weapons?

Thankfully, Iranian films have been fighting against all that. Despite restrictions, and arguably because of them, Iranian cinema has found certain distinct qualities and has grown to become the toast of virtually all major international film festivals, including those in India. Like post-war Italian cinema known for its neo-realism, the new wave of Iranian cinema has become a powerful style statement in world cinema.

(A scene from Taste Of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami)

The films, including those screened at Beyond Chadors And Terror (the recent festival of Iranian films organised by Jawahar Kala Kendra and Iranian Film Club), are not larger than life. They are about life. That is what has been and is defining about Iranian films – their stark simplicity and fascination for realism. At times so harshly intimate and real that the plot feels as if it could be your story. It is as if you have been on the screen and that the film remains etched on your mind after the credits have rolled by, like recurring lines from a memorable poem.

Even Satyajit Ray vouched for greater realism in Indian cinema. “The raw material of cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker. He only has to keep his eyes open, and his ears. Let him do so,” wrote Ray in 1948 in his essay What Is Wrong With Indian Films. “What the Indian cinema needs today is not more gloss, but more imagination, more integrity, and a more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium,” he added. Unfortunately, over half a century later, his words still ring true for much of India’s filmdom.

What’s so filmi you could ask about a brother and his sister managing their lives with one pair of shoes and looking for the one that’s lost (Children Of Heaven by Majid Majidi)? Or for that matter, something as dark as a man in search for a person who could aid him commit suicide (Taste Of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami)? A lot, we realised. The divide between commercial and art cinema is artificial. It is the divide between good and bad cinema that is real.

Because of restrictions in the Islamic Republic and their glorious literary heritage, among other reasons, Iranian filmmakers have become masters at using allegories and symbolism. Like Two Women by Tahmineh Milani where one of the ladies is subjected to severe inequities by her husband. Not one scene shows her being physically abused (had the film done that, it would never have been released). Yet the effect is more lasting and haunting than beating, as the woman gradually begins to lose her sense of identity.

Then there is The Circle by Jafar Panahi that attempts to capture the restrictive circle in which women have to live in Iran. All through the film there is a recurring circular motif, like a roundabout and its circular sign, people walking in circles or climbing circular staircases. Even Taste Of Cherry, given the main character’s obsession of being buried honourably if he commits suicide, has a deliberate attempt at amplifying the soil’s sound, whether it is under the tyres of a Land Rover or when it falls to the earth from a bulldozer.

The festival also rekindled, even if minutely, the links between India and Iran – our shared linguistic heritage being just one of them. Whenever the audience would catch a familiar word in Farsi (all the films were screened in that language with English subtitles), there would be murmurs around the theatre repeating the words. Words like zindagi, tanhayee, khodkhushi and much more. But it also worked the other way around as the audience discovered Iran not just as a land of women strutting in the all-enveloping black cloak or as a land of people spewing profanities at the Great Satan (read the US).

Over the years, cinema has convincingly emerged as one of the best ambassadors for Iran, dismantling the image perpetuated by media reports. "Cinema is a mirror reflecting reality, a picture showing truth, a letter posted to other nations," Mohsen Makhmalbaf, another noted Iranian filmmaker, told The Hindu recently. He is expected to be in Rajasthan soon to shoot Colder Than Fire, his next film that follows an Iranian man and woman travelling through India, “discovering its soulscape rather than the landscape”.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times


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