The Secret Of
By Tariq Ali
23 April, 2005
is as difficult to define or classify Islamic cinema as it would be
a Christian, Jewish or Buddhist one. The language of cinema has always
been universal. Interpretations vary. Censors had different priorities:
in 1950s Hollywood a married couple could not share a double bed and
had to be clothed. In South Asia, the censor's scissors clipped out
kisses from western films. The birth of commercial and art movies did
not remain confined in the west for too long.
The Lumière brothers first exhibited moving pictures in Paris
in 1896. A year later there was a private showing at the Yildiz palace
in Istanbul. The viewers consisted of the Ottoman Sultan/Caliph - the
temporal and spiritual leader of Sunni Islam - and a few selected courtiers.
In 1898 the Ottoman public was let in on the secret and there was a
screening in the beer hall in Galatasaray Square. During the next decade
cinema halls sprouted like wild mushrooms, and audiences in Istanbul
and Smyrna flocked to see everything. Cultural repression began soon
after the first world war in 1919: Ahmet Fehim's films were considered
politically provocative and censored by the British occupying authorities.
With the birth of post-Ottoman Turkey, the new industry found a staunch
supporter in Latifa Usakligil, the feminist wife of Kemal Ataturk (the
marriage lasted two years, from 1923-25). Where Istanbul led, Cairo
followed. And Bombay was not far behind. Muslim stars dominated the
formative years of Bollywood even though, like Jews in Hollywood, many
changed their names to appease the dominant Hindu population. Yusuf
Khan became Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari was once Mahajabeen and it was
an Afghan woman, Mumtaz Begum, who entranced audiences as Madhubala.
Alone among his colleagues in defying convention, the popular comic
actor, Badrudin Kazi, mocked the studio bosses by adopting the Christian
name of a much-favoured imperial tipple: Johnny Walker.
When Pakistan was
carved out of India's rib in 1947 it was assumed by some that Bollywood's
Muslim stars would defect to the new state and thus boost the Lahore
film industry. But Lollywood did not happen. The Pakistan government
decided to help its cinema by banning film imports from India. The result
was a disaster. Commercialism stifled creativity. Since nobody could
see Indian movies, Pakistani producers shamelessly plagiarised the Bombay
original. Nor could Pakistan produce anything that even remotely resembled
the work of Satyajit Ray or Mrinal Sen. Then in the late 1950s and 60s,
the military rulers sealed off the country from "subversive"
influences. Hollywood reigned supreme.
A decade later,
when Pakistan had its first secular, elected, civilian government, women
were encouraged to study and seek employment, but the cinema remained
heavily veiled. It had little to do with Islam as such, since the same
postcolonial rules were in operation in neighbouring India. On-screen
kisses were forbidden. Bosoms could heave but had to be carefully covered
and, even at the beach, actresses had to swim fully clothed. Cinema
proprietors in Pakistan decided to spice their shows with a "tota"
(strip). In Lahore, touts would parade outside some movie theatres and
whisper to bystanders that a "one-minute strip" was being
shown at the late-night performance. The prowling males would pack the
show and halfway through some boring movie, a minute or two of porno-flicks
would appear on the screen. After this the cinema emptied.
That was a long
time ago. Pakistani movies are still awful. A new low point was reached
in 1990 with International Guerrillas , which glorified jihadi militarism
and vilified Salman Rushdie - the equivalent of Hollywood trash depicting
Muslims as terrorists. The "plot" centered on a gang of Islamist
Pakistanis who raid the secure facility where Rushdie is being kept
safe. Much violence follows, but the evil Rushdie is killed through
divine intervention. The film was a box-office flop. More popular were
the porn DVDs that are easily available. Their procurers do a roaring
under-the-counter trade, particularly in Islamist strongholds like Peshawar
and Quetta. Unsurprisingly, a fair proportion of the bearded militants
who spend the day painting veils on billboard actresses, settle down
that same evening to watch some comforting porn.
It's different in
Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, where only last
year the censors passed Arisan . The film's plot revolves around an
architect's eventual coming out as a gay man. The censors passed a movie
depicting male homosexuality and featuring a gay kiss, without exciting
a backlash from local clerics. Likewise in Tajikistan, where Djamshed
Usmonov's latest film, Angel on the Right , depicts sexual, social and
political frustrations (affairs, drunkenness, corruption) without any
problems. The style of his films, strongly influenced by Soviet film
schools, reflects the strengths of that tradition.
It is clerical Iran
that has produced the most vibrant and remarkable cinema of today. Not
since the French New Wave have auteurs from a single country dominated
the art-cinema market. Compelled by circumstances (like their Communist
bloc counterparts of the 1960s) to rely on symbolism and allegory, Iran's
film-makers have produced a varied range of high-quality cinema. One
reason for this is the rich intellectual tradition in the country that
transcended the kitsch world of the Shah as well as bearded puritanism.
The novels of Sedagh Hedayet - especially his masterwork The Blind Owl
- had a Kafkaesque quality: his heroes are intense loners, floundering
in a sea of anguish, remote from those who rule the country. Ahmed Shamlu's
poetry was more optimistic in tone, but staunchly oppositional. These
writers influenced many of Iran's film-makers - before and after Khomeini's
the father of the Iranian New Wave, is a graduate of the Teheran University's
faculty of fine arts and sees cinema as an art form no different from
a painting or a sculpture. Landscape and architecture are as important
as the actors. Each viewing uncovers something new. The end is usually
enigmatic. Different interpretations are always possible. In Taste of
Cherry (1997) a man is trying to commit suicide, but in a calm and dispassionate
fashion. When the censors objected, Kiarostami explained that the movie
was really about the different choices involved in living out each day.
The suicide was incidental. Not exactly my reading of the movie.
The cinematic language
and interior destiny of each Iranian film-maker is different, the international
influences on them vary from Rossellini to Fellini, Akira Kurosawa to
Hou Hsiao-hsien, but there is a strong sense of solidarity. Even the
self-contained Makhmalbaf family sees itself as part of a larger community.
They view and comment on each other's work, they help each other artistically
Jafar Panahi latest
film, Crimson Gold , illustrates the process. Panahi was on his way
to Kiarostami's exhibition of photographs when he heard of a double
killing that had taken place that day in an upmarket jewellery store
in Teheran. He was so upset that he left the exhibition. Later he and
Kiarostami excavated the story behind the incident. Why had a poor,
demobilised veteran from the Iran-Iraq war, now turned pizza delivery
man, shot a jeweller and then taken his own life? Kiarostami agreed
to write the script for Panahi. The result is a neo-realist masterpiece,
where fragments taken from a raw reality are seen in relation to the
overall class structure of contemporary Iran.
Jafar Panahi is,
in some ways, Iran's most fearless film-maker. In The Circle he depicted
the oppression of women with a rare sensitivity. The religious police
are back in action in Crimson Gold , waiting to pounce on unmarried
young women on their way out of a mixed party where we can see them,
silhouetted against the window, dancing and enjoying themselves. It
is this daily interference in social relations between the sexes that
has completely alienated young people from the clerics. Although, as
Crimson Gold reveals, underlying all this is a society where the divide
between rich and poor increases every month.
Marmoulak (The Lizard), released in the UK this week, satirises the
mullahs. A convict (known as "the Lizard") escapes from a
prison hospital disguised as a mullah. He takes the train to a border
town where they are expecting a new mullah. The Lizard has watched enough
Iranian television to pick up the clerical style, but he becomes an
ultra-humanist cleric, encouraging doubt, analysing Tarantino movies,
both surprising and delighting his audience. This film slipped through
the censors and played to packed cinemas throughout the country. When
mullahs began to be addressed publicly as lizards a panic gripped the
cultural establishment and the film was rapidly withdrawn.
critical school of non-conformist Iranian film directors has risen up
against falsehood and irrationality, producing a cinema that has no
rivals in the west today. And religion? It is visible in many guises
in some of these films, but never centre stage and never official
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