Iranian Cinema & Performance Art

A factual analysis of Iranian Comedies
By: Behzad Eshqi, 2005

Dokhtar-e Lor (The lor Girl)
Comic cinema needs security and freedom in order to follow a critical discourse and in closed societies it distances from its truth and inclines toward satire and ridicule. This was the fate of past comic cinema of Iran. On the one hand, Iranian filmmakers did not have a good understanding of true features of comic cinema and. on the other hand, enough freedom for flourishing comic cinema was lacking. The latter was not solely attributable to power centers and state censorship, but part of it was due to the fact that various walks of life in the Iranian society were sensitive toward criticism, even when guised as comedy. Iranian filmmakers were facing a dilemma in this regard. especially before the Islamic revolution. People went to theaters to be entertained and were usually not willing to see movies without comedian actors. For this reason, directors had to use comedians along with their heroes, who were cast in familiar types and clieh0s and repeated the same jests in every film. However, most of their comedy was based on verbal witticism and most of them did not go beyond sexual foolery. Comic types either lacked a social base or identity, or they represented lumpen people and were, in fact, promoters of a lumpen culture in the society. Comedians were practically present in every movie and their presence did not necessarily mean that the film was a comedy because Iranian filmmakers did not make their films on the basis of their personalities. They frequently performed in the margin of rustic or urban melodramas, historical and mythical films, and even action and crime movies and their mission was to add to attraction of films and draw more people to theaters. In fact, all heroes of Iranian films needed a comic accessory to help them attract more attention. Also, producers of Iranian films believed that without a comic accessory the hero will not shine and even a suoerstar like Fardin, always had a comic accessory on his side even in his most successful films that were blockbusters.

A glimpse at box office hits produced before the revolution will reveal that comic accessories were present in most of them and they created a break at the acme of sentimental, regretful scenes to cheer up the audience. Even a film like Qaysar, which ran along the lines of a tragic, bloody story, was not devoid of comedy. In one scene, Bahman Mofid, who played the role of a boasting ruffian, created a break in the film's tragic story and made the audience laugh. Mofid's dialogues in the said scene became catchphrases among people who admired Qaysar for years and many moviegoers watched the film several times, just to enjoy the same scene.

After the revolution, most films that attracted the public and were considered a turning point for the Iranian cinema in terms of box office earning were sidesplitting movies. Statistics show that people are more willing to see such films that will make them laugh. In its true sense, comedy must overreach its outward appearance to reveal social pathology and it is not supposed to be a means of forgetting social ailments. However, comedy has many types, and even jest and jape can be useful if designed in an innovative manner. The main problem with the Iranian comic cinema is not merely inclination toward ridicule and superficial jokes, but is following clichés and not being capable of innovation and creativity. Producers of Iranian comic films claimed in the past that making Iranian people laugh is much harder than making them cry because they have had a tragic past and have always been suffering from despotism and colonialism and are more ready to cry. This is correct per se. Iranian people have always been facing biter historical realities, on the one hand, while needing happiness and joviality to withstand that bitterness, on the other hand. It is for this reason that this apparently bitter people, have always been among the world's most joyful nations and their oral jokes are eloquent and unique. However, the jokes one sees in the Iranian cinema are far below oral jokes rife among people and this is the main reason why making Iranian people laugh seems to be so difficult. Iranian comic cinema can only draw people's attention when it .gets with people's oral jokes, though people even tolerate lame jokes Iranian comic filmmakers in a bid to evade incongruous realities of their society, especially when the hardships life close in on them. In fact, people to movies to evade reality not to see their real faces on the silver screen. When changing the world is not possible, resorting to fortunetelling and Quasi-psychological books as well as cinema are a good haven to forget incongruities.

The Iranian cinema started with comedy. Abi and Rabi as well as Hadji Aqa, the Cinema Actor made by Avanes Oganians, were comic movies. Oganians knew that silent cinema was manifested in comedies because watching serious silent movies was no more interesting for viewers while silent comedies were still attractive. However, his films were screened in Iran at a time that cinema was captured by talking movies and people were not willing anymore to watch silent ones. For this reason, Oganian's movies failed in Iran while the musical and talking melodrama made by Abdolhossein Sepanta, that is, The Lor Girl was received enthusiastically.

Musical melodramas were always favorite genres among Iranian moviegoers. However, people like melodramas that make them laugh at the same time. For this reason, dancing and singing were major features of Iranian melodramas. From this viewpoint, most Iranian films made during the 1950s paid special attention to laughter and took advantage of comic performers who were a constant feature of most Iranian movies.

Ganj-e Qaroun, 1965
From a psychological viewpoint, the 1950s started with dreams that were rapidly turned into a terrible nightmare. People entered the political scene in response to calls from their leaders in the hope that they will get rid of despotism and colonialism soon and will see justice and freedom. However, it was soon proved that freedom and justice were only facts on paper and never went beyond media slogans to take on a practical aspect. Before long, political challenges made people nervous and dismayed them. For this reason, the people were not there to defend their movement in the face of the incoming coup d'etat. Therefore, political leaders lost people's support and lost ground to military coup. This story continued in another form at the beginning of the 1960s. Shah, who played the role of a badman, donned the cloak of a revolutionary figure and claimed to have brought freedom to farmers, women and other oppressed people through his White Revolution. In fact, in the absence of a true savior, Shah created a false and caricature image of a revolutionary savior that could cheat simple people. This attitude was reflected in Qarun’s Treasure several years later.

Qarun has left his wife and child and has lost his health in the course of time. In fact, he is a father (euphemism for the king) who has ignored his child (nation) and is doing poorly. On the other hand, the child (nation) who does not need his wealthy father eulogizes the virtues of poverty and despises of wealth and richness, which compromises spiritual health of man. That is, he is not an unruly child as it was during the national movement or 1963 uprising and does not try to confront his royal father, though he keeps a hidden wrath in his heart due to unkindness of his father. On the other side, the father (the king who has been hurt by past disobedience) does not forget about the child (the nation). Just in the same way that the Shah took his reforms to villages, Qarun enters the life of his son, eats with him and praises the virtues of poverty. The White Revolution was harbinger of unity between the king and the nation, vassals and lords, workers and employers, as well as men and women. Qarun s Treasure materialized the same concept on the silver screen. The White Revolution failed to realize its goals in practice. Qarun s Treasure and the films like that can reflect the dream of reconciliation among opposing social strata. Although Qarun'S Treasure inclines toward sentimentalism in certain scenes, its main attitude is one of joviality. Fardin, who was not a comic actor, tried to make people laugh in such films as Qarun s Treasure and he had a comic accessory on his side in all of those films.

Starting from 1969 with the advent of Qaysar, the choice of moviegoers changed one way or another. The White Revolution had failed in practice and a new hero had entered the scene that did not give a damn about the so-called "unity of Shah and nation" and rose against the status quo. In this way, Ali Bigham (the Joyful Ali) and other comic heroes were marginalized for some years. At that time, new ideas were budding and new political currents were coming to life; every one of them being followed by a certain group of people in the hope of realizing the lost dreams of justice and freedom. As a result, the intellectual streak of the Iranian cinema became more pronounced during the 1970s and took on a political hue. However, these changes did not bar comic cinema in its march and it still attracted moviegoers who went to the theaters to be entertained. During those years, serial films of Samad which contained political and social innuendos in addition to joking and jesting became popular blockbusters. Following the Islamic revolution, however, the Iranian cinema took a u-turn with serious, grim films replacing cheerful comedies. Comic actors either left the country or resigned to unwanted retirement from the stage; Old and new filmmakers, also changed course in line with revolutionary literature to make films about atrocities of Shah and his intelligence apparatus, world arrogance, economic profiteers, blood-thirsty feudal lords, drug trafficking as well as Iran - Iraq war. Blood, violence, fire and bullets replaced dancing, singing and nudity and pictures of violent men brandishing guns covered all publicity posters of Iranian movies. However, people who felt the war and its destruction through bombardment of cities and bodies of war martyrs and were fed-up with television reports on war were no longer willing to see blood and gore on the silver screen. For this reason, most war movies, save for The Eagles and KaniManga, were rejected by people. Commercial success of the said two films was mostly due to the fact that they were modeled after action war movies made in Hollywood and distanced from realistic war stories. However, those films that followed a propaganda attitude to war were not welcome in the society. On the whole, violent movies discouraged people who went to theaters. This continued until cinema authorities came up with a new model for filmmakers by encouraging family melodramas, which relatively managed to change the monotonous atmosphere. However, due to their historical penchant, Iranian moviegoers were used to see melodramas that contained dancing, singing and jesting while sullen, serious family films failed to satisfy them. Therefore, people became fed-up with such family films before long and were not going to theaters to see insignificant family squabbles, which were not totally rooted in reality and were mainly a result of stories cooked up by the Iranian script writers.

The bitter atmosphere created by violent films and grim melodramas continued until a new wave of comedies starting in 1986, including The Bus, The Man Who Knew Too Much (Yadollah Samadi), The Man Who Became a Mouse (Ahmad Bakhshi) and Mirza Nowrouz‘s Shoes (Mohammad Motavasselani) proved commercially successful. In 1987, Dariush Mehrjui's The Lodgers became a turning point in the Iranian comic cinema and was called the best comedy in the history of the Iranian cinema. Mehrjui had not made a new film for a while and his return to the Iranian cinema was made conditional on making a film that would attract public attention. Mehrjui, who was intelligent enough to understand the bleak atmosphere of the Iranian society, made The Lodgers, which was received with unprecedented enthusiasm on the part of people. However, The Lodgers was not solely a comedy, but a new phenomenon in the history of Iran's comic cinema in terms of structure and theme. Mehrjui used slapstick as well as situation comedy in his film, which was an unprecedented experience in the Iranian cinema. Various characters of the film did not make people laugh through their grimaces or verbal jokes, but it was absurd situation of those characters that made people laugh; situations that were outwardly ridiculous, but inwardly tragic and revealed regretful conditions of a society where various strata are fighting one another due to social and economic discrepancies. The said discrepancies finally led to destruction of their residence. Public enthusiasm for The Lodgers caused prosperity of comic movies and paved the way for making more comedies following termination of war because people needed calm and laughing could improve their psychological health.

Cinema authorities are not opposed to comic cinema, but they will not tolerate social or critical comedies and they are also intolerant of comedies which are rejected in the course of moral monitoring.

An example was Snowman, whose public screenmg was banned for a long time due to female makeup worn by Akbar Abdi. Naturally, the comic films made during that period were devoid of lewdness of pre-revolutionary films while local dialects and physical handicaps were not used to amuse people anymore. A number of comic actors such as Akbar Abdi enjoy a rare talent. However, most films made during that period revolved around threadbare themes and refrained from getting engaged in a critical discourse to analyze social maladies while lacking physical action needed for a comic film and only sufficed to verbal jokes. In Courtship (1989), Mehdi Fakhimzadeh uses affectionate relationship between an old man and an old woman to create a comic atmosphere. However, performances were not superior to television intermissions. In Two and a Half Persons (1991), which was inspired by a French film, Yadollah Samadi depicts two single men who find themselves caring for a newborn. Taking care of the little child and resultant problems is the main source of comic theme of the film. In The Pickpockets Don't Go to Heaven (Abolhassan Davoudi, 1991), livelihood problems make heroes do unlawful acts. However, social problems are never scrutinized, but the director finally gets his heroes back on the right path by relying on their moral values. lraj Tahmasb and Hamid Jebelli, along with funny dolls they have created, that is Red-capped and the Cousin made sidesplitting films for Iranian moviegoers, which marked turning points in the Iranian cinema in terms of box office earning, but failed to get the applause from the elite because from an artistic viewpoint, they did nothing but to introduce clichés and promote simple thinking.

During the same period, a number of renowned Iranian filmmakers started making comic films. Kiyanoush Ayyari in his film, The Magnificent Day (1989), made fun of henchmen of Pahlavi regime. Gol Aqa, the main hero of the film, is a popular cyclist and the henchmen intend to use his popularity to mobilize people for welcoming the Shah's sister. However, Gol Aqa finally turns down their request. Kiyanoush Ayyari was not successful in this comic experience. Gol Aqa is a cycling champion, but his sporting field is not used effectively in the film. If Chaplin played the role of a boxer, circus entertainer, military man, barber... in his films, he used characteristics of every one of those professions to the best effect. However, Gol Aqa could have been a boxer, a footballer or a wrestler without damaging the relationships in the film.

Apart from that, people had to laugh at the henchmen of Pahlavi regime, which has been already toppled; the figures that no longer existed and were part of the history with which the filmmaker failed to engage in a dialogue according to new viewpoints. The same problem is repeated in 0 Iran (Nasser Taqvai, 1989). Taqvai chose developments during the Iranian revolution for his comic.

Sergeant Mokvandi is commander of gendarmerie squad of a small town and being a silly military man considers any suspicious move to be a plot. On the opposite, music instructor of the town opposes the false powers of Mokvandi from a cultural position. The film vacillates between serious and comic and the director takes advantage of simple tricks such as physical defects and verbal jests to make a caricature of Mokvandi and his gang. However, inhabitants of the town are pictured seriously. Conflicting characters of the film are special persons who represent conflicts in a small town and, at the same time, try to go beyond themselves to reveal the conflict between culture and militarism on a larger scale. However, personalities are not cast in a real and acceptable manner; neither as individual persons, nor as social types.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf also uses comedy in his films, Once Upon a Time Cinema (1992) and The Actor (1993) to delineate situation of cinema artists in the face of social and political obstacles. However, Once Upon a Cinema enjoys a more coherent structure. The film revolves around the conflict between filmmakers and politicians. To express this, Makhmalbaf evokes historical characters and manipulates their real identities to give them symbolic and general identities. Nassered-Din Shah and the photographer are historical names who turn into general characters for a politician and a filmmaker in Makhmalbaf's film.

The confrontation between the shah who symbolizes a reactionary personage and a new phenomenon like cinema creates an attractive and comic situation. The photographer sometimes agrees with the shah and makes worthless films to satisfy his unrefined taste and sometimes ignores the king's wishes to make his own favorite films. However, his life and identity are finally threatened by the king. Once Upon a Time Cinema was an innovative film whose parallel was not repeated in the Iranian cinema. During that decade, Kamal Tabrizi had a go at comic cinema too and for the first time used war as a subject for comedy, which drew attention of general and special audience by presenting Leili Is with Me. The film subtly and wisely made from of the hypocrisy of part of social groups which used war and martyrdom-seeking culture as a means of gaining more power and managed to present a different picture of media role in war.

Following political developments starting after May 23, 1997, Iran's comic cinema was largely overshadowed by social and critical melodramas. There was more political openness and critical literature was flourishing. Inspired by that political atmosphere, Iranian cinema was using novel themes, which were unprecedented in post-revolutionary cinema. Criticizing patriarchic traditions, defending women's rights, attention to problems facing youth, disclosing hypocritical ascetics, showing extreme poverty of inferior social classes, depicting contravention between tradition and modernity in a transitional society. .. were among major themes whose streaks could be traced in films made during those years. Those films were welcomed most enthusiastically by society and people went to theaters to see their contemporary life being criticized. The society was excited and almost all social strata were asking political questions. Newly established newspapers and magazines expanded their readership by revealing interesting information while part of the Iranian cinema had turned into a political medium opposed to traditions in tandem with other media. However, that atmosphere did not last long because some social forces were opposed to such films and cinema officials were influenced by them. On the other hand, part of commercial filmmakers caused people's consternation and disillusionment by making superficially critical movies about unfaithfulness and violence of men, as well as young girls and boys fleeing their homes.

A scene of "Marmoulak", 2004
Although the number of comedies decreased during that period, some comedy filmmakers used the relative social openness to make films about new subjects that were welcomed by the public. Snowman was allowed to be screened after several years of ban and drew many people to theaters while The Changed Man marked a turning point in terms of box office sales by opposing traditions and selecting a subject which could not have been referred to under previous conditions and Sunglasses succeeded to drew people's attention. At the same time, family melodramas were gradually losing ground because political activities following May 23,1997 were rapidly abating and people had lost their trust in politics and were looking for a place that would give them peace. In this way, comedies once more became popular. Understanding the new situation, Dariush Mehrjui made Mom s Guest which took advantage of attractive performances and, in fact, reflected the jovial sub-layer of the psychology of the Iranian people in a realistic manner. Kamal Tabrizi used a sensitive theme in his film, Marmoulak (The Lizard), which despite precautions taken, did not go scot-free. This shows that the Iranian society is still less prone to accept critical comedies and, for this reason, original and social comedies can never last. On the contrary, comic cinema has always been exploited by superficial, worthless films which lose popularity very soon due to excessive use of clichés and repetitions. Therefore, many comedies which are being made this year may prove big failures of the Iranian cinema next year.

People have craved for comedies during the whole history of the Iranian cinema, but Iranian filmmakers, except for some exceptions, have never met the public need in a suitable manner.