The grass is certainly greener in Iran.

What Pakistan can learn from Iranian cinema

The grass is certainly greener in Iran.
08 Nov, 2019

Remember Dhoop Kinaray and Aangan Terha? Or PTV’s fantastic offering 50/50 that launched some of the country’s greatest comic stars from Moin Akhtar and Anwar Maqsood to Bushra Ansari.

Our country’s satirical and subversive literature and scriptwriting managed to poke fun at a totalitarian regime in an era when censorship was at its peak.

Funnily enough, Pakistani art thrived under the brutal and fascist dictatorship of Ziaul Haq while the current situation is despairing. Despite a (somewhat) free media, our country’s commercial cinema and TV are still struggling with regressive ideas, stale plotlines and hackneyed dialogues that are best left behind in the previous century.

While Pakistani television produces some incredible stories that bring to the fore important issues like mental illness (Ishq Zah-e-Naseeb) and abusive marriages (Khaas) our industry faces a dearth of smart scriptwriting and writers who are abreast of modern issues.

While a lot of the blame can be placed on the restrictive narratives that our stories can portray given the country’s sensitivity to taboo topics, our scripts need to be held up to a better standard, one that is not inspired by Bollywood.

Enter our friendly neighbouring state, Iran. Known for its strict adherence to Sharia since the fall of the last Persian Empire, its bristling responses to the US and defiance of regional leader Saudi Arabia, most Pakistanis might be astounded to discover the rich history and tradition of cinema stemming from the country.

Iranian filmmakers and scriptwriters navigate the dual complexities of Sharia and a conservative society while still touching upon topics that would make the Pakistani censor board swoon.

Iran’s most prolific director, Asghar Farhadi, isn’t just the recipient of countless national honours but in fact has bagged two Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film for his films A Separation and The Salesman, making him one of the few directors worldwide who have been awarded the accolade twice.

Farhadi’s scripts features no vulgarity or nudity, but tackle subjects of sexuality with adroitness that takes the taboo out of the topic. And while Farhadi is the face of contemporary Iranian cinema, another director, Abbas Kiarostami, has been celebrated since the 1990s for his films such as Close-Up and Taste of Cherry. Kiarostami’s movies have made it to numerous best foreign language film lists and his position as a scion of filmmaking is a globally accepted fact.

What might be even more interesting to note is the fact that Iranian cinema started out in the studios of the East India Company; in fact, the very first sound feature film the country produced, Dokhtar-e-Lor (Lor Girl) was in collaboration with the Imperial Film Company in Bombay in 1932.

Since 1962, when poet and author Forough Farrokhzad first showcased her debut documentary, The House Is Black, Iranian cinema started out on a path of creative divergence and has never divested from it since.

Pakistan has often struggled with its image and branding in today’s tech-savvy spheres and as a nation we have look towards cricket as a means of diplomacy, hosting foreign royalty, vloggers and adventure travellers in a bid to project the country’s “softer” side — but simply taking a page out of an Iranian scripts would suffice.

While the news painted Iran in the image of an angry bearded man (Khomeini) who seemed as far removed from art and cinema as possible, through the film festival circuit, the country managed to paint and portray a different Iran: a poignant, humane one. This transformation was vital in how the world perceived not only its movies, but also how Iran was viewed globally.

It is disappointing to see a country that can boast of a rich literary tradition ranging from Ghalib and Iqbal to Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ismat Ara resorting to bankrolling scripts by misogynistic writers that propagate hate, divisiveness and two-dimensional characters.

Our plots are a hodge-podge porridge of borrowed stories from India or Hollywood, overused slapstick humour, homophobia and gendered insults where the man is always right and the good woman is always the one who silently bears whatever injustice society throws her way. Our writers defend their rotting plotlines with vehemence and arrogance that would have probably take even Shakespeare aback.

In contrast, just reading the synopsis of Farhadi’s award-winning movies is enough to excite a film enthusiast. The Salesman (2016) borrows its name from American playwright Arthur Miller’s drama, Death of a Salesman, but focuses on urban issues such as housing, security, living independently and a marriage coming to terms with trauma.

The story, though rooted in Iranian culture, is approachable and can resonate with city-dwellers across the globe. Similarly, A Separation (2011) takes on several issues that plague modern marriages in familial societies, from caring for ailing parents to the rights of domestic help. In neither movie does the narrative make a judgement call, nor does it paint any character in a flat shade of Vanta black.

What makes Iranian cinema aspirational is the humane manner in which it approaches its stories and subjects.

The sensitivity of the filmmaker towards each character, whether they appear onscreen for a split second or play a titular role ensures a developed plotline that charts the progression of characters rather than jumping from scenario to scenario with the audience left to fill in the gaps (I'm looking at you Sherdil, Heer Maan Ja and Parwaaz Hai Junoon).

How did Iran accomplish cinematic success with the same setbacks that plague our country? How did they manage to break through the religious barrier without offending their hardline government?

The answer is simple: they embraced their national identity, head scarf and all included, and nurtured a strong culture of arts that held up a mirror to society while helping it grow and improve.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is — let’s hold our actors, directors, writers and artists in general to a better, higher standard.

If art is a reflection of society then maybe instead of opting for productions that believe in dumbing down stories for the viewer, or creating only visually appealing content, it’s time we embraced our literary legacy and bring to the fore more than just lascivious item numbers.

The only thing holding back Pakistani cinema and TV is our own warped mentality and unwillingness to take a risk for the sake of art. We must learn to speak about important issues rather than sweep them under the rug and there’s no better place to begin with than cinema.


Queen Nov 08, 2019 08:20am
Besides Iranian cinema, South Korean dramas are also among the best when it comes to story-telling and acting.
Rashid Siddique Parhyar Nov 08, 2019 08:32am
Children of heaven, Song of sparrows and Baran are among the best films of Iranian Cinema. Best acting and stories with zero glamour; Recommended for every decent Family.
DIJA Nov 08, 2019 09:05am
Very nicely put forward the reality!
Furqan Nov 08, 2019 09:45am
But we are so dumb that we think a movie is incomplete without a man thumping his heart for a woman. A movie can be made without a song.
ALI Nov 08, 2019 09:48am
If art is the reflection of culture what are we comparing ?? The resilience, defiance & sophistication of IRI has no parallel. I remember watching an Iranian comedy Mister Halu way back in my teenage & understood only part of the Pahlavi dialect it was a memorable experience. I am absolutely thrilled that Khanam Googoosh has last week released her first song after 40 ? years it is absolutely astounding & she is still beautiful. That is the depth in story of our ignored & underrated neighbors.
Sajid Nov 08, 2019 10:14am
This is an interesting article. Being a fan of Iranian cinema, especially of Majid Majidi's films, I can vouch for brilliance and originality of Iranian films. I just wish the author had explored the subject with a greater nuance than just attributing the success of Iranian cinema solely to the pride Iranians take in their culture. I think, cinema not only reflects the society but also is a reflection of intellectual vibrancy and dynamics in society. We might not have them in abundance, but it is not the case that we do not have them at all; somehow those stories, voices and pockets of talent do not get reflected in the mainstream cinema for different reasons. May be, the writer should have explored the structures of art industry in both states; a comparison in that regard would have yielded more productive conclusions.
Rajiv Shamra Nov 08, 2019 11:13am
Being a fan of Iranian cinema i can answer the Question in the headline with one world which is "Honest"... Govt of Iran actually funded movies like "When i became woman"
Syed Najm-ul-Hassan Nov 08, 2019 11:16am
shakeel mahota Nov 08, 2019 11:43am
I think the writer has herself pointed to the central issue - a week national identity in our country as opposed to a stronger one in Iran.
ahmad Nov 08, 2019 11:59am
"While the news painted Iran in the image of an angry bearded man (Khomeini) who seemed as far removed from art" In fact he was the man who mentioned the importance of cinema in his very first speeche and stressed on making cinema locally relatable. Not just this, he was very knowledgeable about films and sent Iranian director on scholarship to learn filmmaking from Italy.
Aqeel Nov 08, 2019 11:59am
great.. cent per cent agreed , we have forgotten our history culture and heritage.New generation even dont know about the lengends like Faiz ahmed faiz, Nasir kazmi,Saghar siddqui and many more poets writers and artists.our industry is just copying bollowood and hollywood
Salman Ali Nov 08, 2019 12:01pm
Constructive Title but disappointing article. Why do we need to criticise what we have, to prove a point? Iran no doubt has exceptional film makers, globally lauded. But Pakistan is also producing some good quality dramas. Compared to 1980s, quantity produced is multiple times. So talent gets spread. However, good quality dramas are being produced. Our Indian friends always acknowledge this also. Pakistan film industry revival is progressing well. It is catering to wide range of interest by producing films like Cake and Jawani Phir Na Aani. Hopefully sufficient money will keep flowing in for film producers to invest and improve.
Awais Soomro Nov 08, 2019 12:07pm
Best time to explore other options besides Bollywood. And I am also lucky enough to explore Iranian and Turkish movies. Majid Majidi's movies along with Asghar Farhadi are the best alternative we can find on Otherside of our border. Additionally, we can also venture into Turkish movies. Both of these cinemas have an outlook which is much similar to our culture. It is high time for us to explore the movie plots where having an "Item song" is not mandatory, more importantly even the perfect ending does not matter.
N abidai Nov 08, 2019 12:15pm
Turkish dramas are great with most international following the stories gets one hooked !
Rebirth Nov 08, 2019 12:58pm
Egyptian, Iranian and Turkish cinema is far ahead of us. We've been exposed to Turkish movies and shows, as a society. Only a few Iranian movies and shows have ever reached our shores. Those that attracted the mainstream and not a specific demographic group related to religious stories that we all unanimously agree on. As far as Egyptian movies are concerned, they've been the go-to movies for the entire MENA region since before Omer Sharif (their actor, not our comedian). The cinema of all 3 countries far supersedes that of India.
Rabbit Nov 08, 2019 01:10pm
The main thing to learn is that the Iranian cinema is better.
Haris Nov 08, 2019 01:17pm
Separation and Children of heavens are the best. Do watch them.
ZUBAIR kHAN Nov 08, 2019 03:20pm
Good article. We too need to embrace our Muslim identity dopattas, pugris, moochain, masjid all included! Unfortunately, lately Pak films are often selling an agenda or copying wholesale Indian films, which are poor in themselves. Earlier indian films would be in cinemas at the same time so there was naturally a competition, but now is a great time to experiment with content.
M. Saeed Nov 08, 2019 04:55pm
Restrictive and passive narratives that our TV stories contain, having no serious impact on viewers, are entirely due to the excessive stretching to meet the un-natural commercial demands of lasting the 30 or so episodes.
ad Nov 08, 2019 08:21pm
I think the author needs to see the poetic collection of Imam Khomeini titled 'The Wine of Love'... Even Ayatollah Khamenei is very well read having read Allama Iqbal's Persian works and Western classical literature....
Muzaffar Ali Nov 08, 2019 08:36pm
Excellent right up....Ms Bokhari you have a strong pen!
M. Emad Nov 08, 2019 08:46pm
No comparison between Iranian and Pakistani cinemas.