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'In a repressive country, you have to use poetic means to say what you want'
Dariush Mehrjui is credited with having put Iranian cinema on the global map. His ‘Gaav’ (The Cow, 1969) is widely held to have kicked off the acclaimed filmmaking movement that was later dubbed the Iranian New Wave. The 72-year-old film director and writer of over twenty films was in New Delhi for the Osian's Cinefan Film Festival. TOI-Crest spoke to him about artistic influences and the birth of the realist traditions with which Iranian cinema still wows the world.
Just what was it about Italian neorealism that influenced a whole generation of Iranian filmmakers like you, and sparked off the Iranian New Wave? Is it still greatly relevant?
You see up to that time (the 1960s), cinema was a kind of illusion, it was something fictionalised in a rather overly elaborated way - the Hollywood style, which was the dominant cinema style across the globe. But suddenly there comes this cinema (neorealist) that completely eradicates all kinds of attitude, and in fact adopts a 'documentary attitude' to approaching people, situations and their lives. Neorealism more or less destroyed the falsity, that artificial facade that was previously presented in Hollywood and elsewhere. Although there were some earlier efforts to avoid this kind of artificiality - German expressionism comes to mind, as does some of the silent cinema of an earlier era, especially D W Griffith and much of Chaplin - but neorealism, essentially, was something completely new and radical. The Bicycle Thief was the first film that made me cry. It had such an effect. That was the reason that this movement influenced artists worldwide. The same thing that happened with Iranian cinema had earlier happened in France with the Nouvelle Vague and all those fine filmmakers who were influenced by such humanism too. In our country we did almost the same thing beginning in the late 1960s. It also taught me to look at reality that is your own. Look in your own society, your culture, there will be the universal. So it's a trend which will always keep repeating as long as films are about the human spirit, about human culture and the preferences that we have artistically, which is unanimous about the fact that we are individuals;we're all the same kind of human beings
But Hollywood, especially the singular films of Nicholas Ray and Alfred Hitchcock (whom those filmmaker-critics first hailed as masters), was the biggest influence on the French New Wave. Did none of that really influence aspects of Iranian film?
I didn't really like American cinema except the films of Orson Welles and Chaplin. Or some of John Ford's movies, like The Grapes of Wrath. I was in Hollywood for a while but never had the inclination to go look up, say, Hitchcock, to talk or learn. This was true of a generation of our filmmakers trying not to be imitative of this mainstream. But I did admire Stanley Kubrick. He, however, moved to England and was not easily contactable. I used to wish I could go and knock on his door and say "I love you" and something like that (laughs). But otherwise we looked up to the French, to the Nouvelle Vague. I worshipped Truffaut, Godard, Resnais. Especially Godard, you know, with five or six of his early films, they were very affecting, very influential everywhere, with their experiments in narrative. Resnais was a big factor too, but Godard is the one who most effectively broke old structures in cinema;he changed everything. And then suddenly there also came Ingmar Bergman, this grand cineaste;such beautiful ideas and this grand philosophy in his movies. Such well built scripts. Strindberg was clearly behind him, a constant reference in his work, and it shows. And then his contemporary Italians, Fellini and Antonioni, with their examinations of existentialism - they were big influences.
The artful use of the metaphor is something Iranian cinema has achieved worldwide fame for. Any particular
reasons this tradition of cinematic storytelling took root in Iran? When you are living in a repressive country and a society in which the few liberal journals, magazines and papers that come up are confiscated and banned, and you cannot directly criticise or even make any allusive criticism of the state and society, people then look to the arts - to poetry, theatre, cinema, fiction - to somehow stand in as a substitute for this kind of absent attitude. So that's why our films before the Islamic Revolution had so many problems with the government. Many were censored, banned or confiscated. The Cow was also confiscated for a long time. We were trying to reveal those aspects of society that were hidden from the public in our films, because we could not say what we wanted to freely, so we had to deviate and use more poetic means. And audiences responded dramatically to these more artistic films. For example, when my The Cycle came out, halls were packed, which shows how much people identified with the themes and felt the need for them to be addressed. Censorship greatly changes you, crystallises certain things. But this happens even in capitalist democratic societies. Staying with the metaphors thing, Milos Forman has a very beautiful one: he spoke of the difference between a repressive country and a capitalist democracy as being that between a zoo and a jungle. In a repressive society, they feed you, protect you and take care of you, but you're in a cage with no freedoms, they control your very life. In a jungle, there are dangers everywhere, so even though you're free, you have to fight constantly. But that's the dynamism of a free and capitalist society. There's the deadliness there too, as you have in a repressive society, but in a different sort of way. So you still have to be careful.
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