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Mehrjui and Iranian cinema ( Part – I )

One of the founding fathers of Iranian New Wave cinema, Dariush Mehrjui, and his writer wife, Vahidea Mohammadi, lost their lives in a knife attack in Tehran on Oct 14, 2023. With their deaths, a long chapter of Iranian cinema came to an end.

Mehrjui was 84-years-old and one wonders why someone should murder a couple that had contributed so much to the art and craft of cinema in Iran. Mehrjui was a pioneer of Iranian New Wave cinema and his film ‘Gaav’ (The Cow) is one of the finest movies ever produced in world cinema. This 1969 movie has become a classic and no lover of cinema can skip it, and claim to be a movie buff. The purpose of this article is not to recount his biography that anyone can access through the internet and from various obituaries that have appeared in the media.

Here we are more concerned with the context in which he produced some of his best movies and how he drew inspiration from others, and in turn himself inspired others. Iran of the 1960s was under the yoke of a repressive monarchical regime that had suppressed the sole attempt to democratize the country under the leadership of Mohammad Mosaddegh in the early 1950s. That was the decade when nationalism in the Middle East was on the rise and the ruling elites in various countries faced a challenge to their domination.

Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Mosaddegh in Iran, Abd al-Karim Qasim in Iraq, Salah Jaded and Hafiz al-Asad in Syria, and many others symbolized a nationalist streak that ran through the Middle East. Iran was a country that had witnessed a failed attempt to take away some powers from Shah Reza Pahlavi; by the late 1960s the suppression of all dissent was at its peak. Under such circumstances there are always authors, columnists, democrats, educationists, and filmmakers who find a way out by expressing people’s feelings in direct or indirect manners.

By the time Dariush Mehrjui entered the film arena, he had developed interest in various forms of fine and performing arts including dance, drama, film, music, and paintings. His particular interest in literature and philosophy also helped him devise interesting techniques to say what was difficult to utter in that many words. ‘Gaav’ was not his first film, nor was it without any connection with the past. From the early 1920s to the early 1940s at least a dozen great personalities opened their eyes in Iran and impacted the art, culture, literature, and politics in the coming decades.

Ebrahim Golestan – born in 1922 – was perhaps the first of them. Golestan, a left-wing activist in his youth, opened the first film studio in Iran in 1957 that paved the way for the Iranian New Wave in the 1960s. Ezzatollah Entezami was born in 1924 and later became one of the most enduring and prominent actors in Iran with his outstanding performance in ‘Gaav’. Both Golestan and Entezami ended up as grand old men of Iranian cinema; Entezami died at the age of 94 in 2018 and Golestan closed his eyes as a centenarian in 2023.

And yes, there was a woman too – Fakhri Khorvash (1929) – who established herself as a preeminent actress in many new-wave films and died at the grand old age of 94 in 2013. Ali Shariati was born in 1933 and in the next few decades assumed the mantle of an intellectual giant in Iran. Forugh Farrokhzad and Jamshid Mashayekhi were born in 1934, the former emerging as a leading poet still in her 20s, and the latter as an eminent actor.

Ali Nasirian and Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, also came to this world in the mid-1930s. Nasirian became a well-known actor and writer while Sa’edi occupied a high literary pedestal as one of the finest story writers in Persian. Behrouz Vossoughi, Hajir Dariush, and Dariush Mehrjui graced this planet in the late 1930s. Abbas Kiarostami, Masud Kimiai, Nasser Taghvai, M Reza Aslani, Sohrab Shahid Saless, and Homayoun Ershadi were members of the 1940s generation; most of them had a lot to do with the launch and progress of the Iranian New Wave in cinema. In 1961, Farrokhzad made her acting debut with Golestan in a documentary by Canadian director Hubert Aquin about courtship practices in four countries.

In 1963, the early signs of a new wave in cinema became visible with two outstanding movies: a 20-minute film ‘Khaneh Siah Ast’ (The House is Black) by Forugh Farrokhzad as the director and her partner Ebrahim Golestan as the producer; the second film was ‘Jild-e-Maar’ (Serpent’s Skin) by Hajir Dariush, loosely based on D H Lawrence’s novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. ‘Khaneh Siah Ast’ is set in a leper colony in the north of Iran and it was the only film that Farrokhzad directed. Though the film appears to be educational and informative about leprosy, it is also a symbol of Iranian society under the Shah.

‘Jild-e-Maar’ – with Fakhri Khorvash as an aging lady – made a radical departure from the norm of melodrama so common under the Shah regime that wanted to promote a livelier and vivacious side of Iran rather than some actual problems the people of Iran were facing. With more nuanced and sophisticated direction, the film introduced a new style of storytelling that encouraged audiences to engage in critical thought and question the status quo. ‘Khaneh Siah Ast’ and ‘Jild-e-Maar’ were experimental short works that shook the Iranian audiences with both documentary and feature film genres, using a minimalist approach that other directors followed.

Then in 1964, Ebrahim Golestan created a big bang by writing and directing ‘Khesht va Ayeneh’ (Brick and Mirror) about a cab driver who finds an infant child in the back seat of his cab one night after he gives a ride to a young woman. The film clearly takes a clue from the Italian Neorealist cinema of the 1940s and 1950s. The film is useful to understand Iranian society of the 1960s when an unmarried couple could spend nights together but remained afraid of adopting a child who is perhaps illegitimate. The last scene with abandoned children in an orphanage is mesmerizing.

Farrokhzad and Golestan were closely associated and perhaps romantically involved but unfortunately in 1967 Farrokhzad died in a car crash that devastated Golestan too. He could not produce any outstanding film after that tragedy and after a few years left Iran to settle in the UK where he continued writing. By the late 1960s, two more directors carried the torch forward: Masud Kimiai and Dariush Mehrjui both under 30 years of age, directed ‘Gheisar’ with Behrouz Vossoughi and Jamshid Mashayekhi and ‘Gaav’ with Entezami respectively. The first revolved around the theme of honour killings that a young man Gheisar (Behrouz) commits to avenge his sister’s rape and suicide, and the murder of his brother.

The murder of one killer in a bathroom reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho murder scene. But the most exceptional production of 1969 was ‘Gaav’ by Mehrjui that deserves some detailed treatment here as it brought him national and international recognition. Mind you, under the Shah regime one needed to be discreet in expression, so Mehrjui directed a masterpiece of symbolic drama about a simple villager and his nearly mythical attachment to his cow. Adapted from a short story by Sa’edi, with superb acting by Ezzatollah Entezami, Ali Nasirian and Jamshid Mashayekhi, the film remains my all-time favourite. Mehrjui would work with Entezami and Nasirian throughout his career.

To be continued

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "Mehrjui and Iranian cinema ( Part – I )," The News. 2023-11-01.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Ruling elite , Democrats , Columnists , Fakhri Khorvash , Shah Reza Pahlavi , Iran