Thursday July 18, 2024

Mehrjui and Iranian cinema ( Part – II )

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
November 05, 2023
Poster of the film Gaav: — IRANIAN FILM EMPIRE
Poster of the film Gaav: — IRANIAN FILM EMPIRE

In Mehrjui’s film ‘Gaav’, Masht Hassan – a peasant in an isolated village – has a close relationship with his cow, which is his only possession and the sole cow in the village catering to the milk needs of the village dwellers, mostly old women.

While Hassan is out on some business for a couple of days, the villagers discover that the cow has mysteriously died. They bury the cow and tell Hassan that it has run away. While in mourning for the cow, Hassan starts behaving strangely and stays in the barn, gradually assuming the cow’s identity. When his friends attempt to take him to a hospital, he commits suicide.

The film had received some government funding to portray good rural life, but it was banned for over a year for showing Iran in a negative light. The film was clearly critical of the Pahlavi government and when it received international awards, the government allowed it on screens in the country.

‘Gaav’ was a major milestone in Iranian cinema as it dealt with an increasing paranoia and fetishism of the Pahlavi regime that was about to celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. While the people of Iran felt alienated with the regime (the dead cow) the Shah was too attached to his idea of empire that had outlived its utility.

Mehrjui in his ‘Gaav’ used a similar treatment that nearly half a century ago German director F W Murnau had used in his film ‘The Last Laugh’ (1924). In that film, a doorman in a big hotel becomes too attached to his uniform as it gives him a certain prestige among his friends and neighbours. Perhaps Mehrjui drew his ideas from his studies of literature and psychology.

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and psychological disorder boanthropy both appear to have informed Mehrjui to present this entirely believable story of degeneration. The film had no traditional elements of box office attraction, as it was a minimalist film with minimum dialogues and props. With close-up frames of elderly women, a mark of Satyajit Ray is clearly visible that he used in his ‘Pather Panchali’ (1955). ‘Gaav’ also shows some perceived enemies of the villagers symbolizing a hallucinating regime that fears for its survival.

With ‘Gaav’, a floodgate was opened for more new wave movies such as ‘Agha-ye Hallou’ (Mr Gullible) by Mehrjui in 1970 and ‘Rahaee’ by Nasser Taghvai in 1971. Ali Nasirian wrote and acted with Fakhri Khorvash in ‘Agha-ye-Hallou’ that deals with the naiveté of a villager who moves to Tehran to seek a wife but finds the urbanites – both men and women – too cunning to his rustic comfort.

‘Rahaee’ is another minimalist short film about a fisher boy who catches a small fish and keeps it for a while; but when he finds himself confined in a room he realizes the importance of free movement and releases it back to sea. That was an era when the Shah’s secret service used to detain people without a trace, as now it happens in Pakistan. By 1972, the Shah of Iran had spent millions of dollars on the celebrations of the Persian Empire while his people were disgusted at the obscene display of richness by an impotent aristocracy.

This impotence Mehrjui showed in his 1972 film ‘Postchi’ (The Postman) based on an adaptation of the 19th-century German play by Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck. It also has some similarities with ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in an inverse manner. Nasirian plays a miserable postman who is impotent and has two night jobs to pay his debts. His wife seeks sexual gratification from their master’s young son. The postman takes help from a quack doctor and hopes to win a lottery to change his fortune. When he finds out about the liaison between his wife and his master’s son, in a fit of rage he kills his wife. This was Mehrjui’s second film to face a temporary ban in Iran as it exposed Iranian aristocracy, the corrupt bureaucracy, and the degeneration of the entire system.

In the early 1970s, there emerged another director who made one of the most minimalist movies of the new wave. Sohrab Shahid Saless created a masterpiece ‘Tabiyat-e-Bijan’ (Still Life) released in 1974. It was about a lifeless family of a railway gatekeeper who has been at his position for 33 years at a railway crossing. Interestingly, by 1974 the Shah of Iran had sat on his lifeless throne for exactly 33 years. It is hard for the gatekeeper to accept his retirement.

By the mid-1970s, Ali Shariati had his impact on a different front in Iran. Dubbed as a ‘Marxist Revolutionary Shia’ he was influential due to his speeches and writings that challenged the status quo. Many film directors of the Iranian New Wave received inspiration from Shariati; M Reza Aslani was one of them. His 1976 film ‘Shatranj-e-Baad’ (Chess of the Wind) is an excellent indictment of the Pahlavi dynasty that cared more for its assets and legacy than its people, as it happens in Pakistan too.

The film is about an aristocratic family where the head of the family – Khanom Bozorg – has recently died. Her heir – Khanom Kouchak – is a paralyzed woman, and there are disputes among the family, her maid, the nanny and the stepfather’s nephews over the possession of the family wealth. The film was only once on screens in 1976 and then disappeared probably as a result of the ire by the Shah. It was rediscovered and restored decades later. This film reminded me of Garcia Lorca’s play ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ and the French film ‘Diabolique’ by Henri Clouzot. ‘Shatranj-e-Baad’ shows nearly all classes of Iranian society indulging in their petty interests.

In 1977, amid growing hatred and resentment against the Shah two important events took place. Ali Shariati was found dead in mysterious circumstances in the UK where had gone for treatment after years of imprisonment and persecution in Iran. His supporters accused Savak – the Iranian secret service – of murdering Shariati. There was a huge outcry against the Pahlavi regime and its longest serving prime minister Amir-Abbas Huveyda, who for 12 years had led mass persecutions in Iran. Just two months after Ali Shariati’s death, the king of Iran had to remove his prime minister.

The same year, Mehrjui worked on his next best film ‘Dayereh Mina’ (The Cycle), and released it in 1978. It portrays a bleak picture of Iranian society where black market and illicit blood traffic is rampant. Mehrjui based his film mostly on actual events that his friend Sa’edi had investigated and wrote a play about. It shows a young man and his dying father going from their poor neighbourhood to a hospital to get treatment that is too expensive. An unscrupulous doctor Sameri (Entezami) offers them money in exchange for giving illegal and unsafe blood donations.

The film uses both realism and symbolism to show real problems with a symbolic depiction of how an entire society is infected with corruption even by those who are supposed to cure the nation. During that time, Iran was going through great political changes that ultimately led to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which ended the era of Iranian New Wave cinema. In 1981, Mehrjui and his family left Iran for France and remained there for several years. After his return he made many excellent movies such as ‘Ijara Nasheenha’ (The Tenants, 1987) – a black comedy about a crumbling building depicting Iran.

‘Hamoun’ (1990) was about a young couple whose artistic and educational aspirations dissipate resulting in their marital and psychological breakdown much in the same fashion as was later shown in the Hollywood movie ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Sam Mendes. Leila (1997) was about an infertile woman forced to arrange her husband’s second marriage. ‘Derakht-e-Golabi’ (Pear Tree, 1998) is about a writer who has a writer’s block and recalls his childhood days. In the 2000s Mehrjui directed over a dozen movies but only two of them I rank as of high value: ‘Mehman-e-Maman’ (Mom’s Guests, 2004) and ‘Santouri’ (The Music Man, 2007).

Though Iranian New Wave cinema came to an end in 1980, post-revolutionary cinema also gave us some marvelous directors and their impressive films that deserve another article. Mehrjui was perhaps the last of the pioneers of the Iranian New Wave.


The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: