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Going to movies: Acquainting Iranian Cinema

Circa 2009. I was not even aware of the term ‘World Cinema’. I had only watched Hindi and Marathi films that aired on television and a few in theatres. Can’t remember watching a complete Hollywood movie before that either. I enrolled myself in a 3-month course to learn screenwriting. The course was a total waste of money because the actual learning began after the course got over and I started reading screenplays and watching more and more movies.


But the silver lining of those 3 months was that I got introduced to Iranian cinema. Before my course began, the film school had organized a 2-day Iranian film festival in its premises. I was allowed to attend the festival for free because I had already paid the course fees. By I, I mean my father who with a heavy but kind heart gave me 25,000 rupees for the course despite an average monthly income. I run my family now and don’t owe anyone any money, but I will be forever indebted for those invaluable 25k.


Back to the Iranian film festival. Director Reza Mirkarimi had flown in to attend the festival and we were shown three of his films – As Simple As That (2008), So Close So Far (2005), and Under The Moonlight (2001).

As Simple As That (Be Hamin Sadegi) was the first Iranian film that I watched. It was about a woman struggling in her marriage. If my memory serves me right, the woman wants to escape from her failing marriage but a simple act by a neighbour lady makes her decide against eloping.


So Close, So Far (Kheili Dour, Kheili Nzadik) was about a neurologist father trekking through a desert to catch up with his son’s astronomy field trip when he finds out that his son is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. It was the most moving picture of all shown during those two days.


It was also in those two days that I got introduced to the cinema of two of Iranian cinema’s biggest names, Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. Little did I know back then that I would end up watching most of their films. I watched Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997) and Panahi’s meta film The Mirror (1997).

A still from Jafar Panahi's The Mirror

I was intrigued by the land and people and the simplicity of storytelling of all these filmmakers. The people in their films looked relatable. I had seen versions of them in my village and town. For the linguistic nerd that I am, it was also great to hear familiar Farsi words which I had earlier known to be Hindi or Urdu.


I also got to know about Majid Majidi’s films but I doubt whether I watched one in those two days. I watched his filmography later. Although I liked Majidi and Mirkarimi’s work, it was Kiarostami’s and Panahi’s films that stayed with me. Kiarostami’s poetry in motion through conversations was achingly beautiful. More than half of his films have people sitting in a vehicle and talking. The camera angles are standard but still, Kiarostami created an immersive experience. Cinema is a visual medium but making two people talking look visually stunning is a craft mastered by very few. I could think of only Richard Linklater other than Kiarostami who achieved that so beautifully.

A still from Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry

As for Panahi, his filmmaking journey is equally remarkable as his films if not more. Besides simplicity, there’s innocence in his rebellious voice. The filmmaker was under house arrest and was prohibited from making films. But still, he managed to make a film like Taxi Tehran (2015) where he plays the taxi driver himself. In Closed Curtain (2013), he shows the plight of an artist/person under house arrest.


This Is Not A Film (2011) was Panahi’s first film after being under house arrest which he managed to make entirely in his house and smuggled to the Cannes Film Festival. One can only salute this courageous champion of cinema.

Jafar Panahi as the driver in Taxi Tehran

After my introduction in 2009, I have watched quite a few Iranian films, some of them multiple times. Most of them have intrigued me, some have made me introspect, while some have simply brought a smile to my face. There’s a supposed political divide among Indian filmmakers/artists w.r.t the right wing and left wing. Frankly, everyone bends down in front of capitalism, eventually. A certain group of Indian filmmakers might say that it’s become increasingly difficult to make political films or any films in India, Iranian filmmakers show that if they can make films amidst the political unrest going on in their country, then anyone in the world can make films.


As I write this, the indie movie streaming platform Mubi is carrying Cinema By Any Means: A Jafar Panahi Retrospective. Catch it if you can, not only for his films but also for the plight and fight of an artist.


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