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.