Volume 4 : Cover Topic - Iranian Cinema (4)

DEPICTING URBAN SPACE IN MODERN IRAN : Majid Majidi’s “Children of Heaven”

Kingshuk Chatterjee


Over the past decade and a half, a large swathe of Iranian movies has begun to win great renown across the globe as important contributions to the art of film-making. Among the filmmakers winning great acclaim domestically as well as internationally, Majid Majidi probably represents a rare breed that concentrates on themes relating not only to social life in modern Iran, but also a sense of the ‘space’ in which such social life is ‘located’. Majidi’s “Bachcheha-e Asman” (Children of Heaven), which won an Academy award in the Best Foreign Film catagory, is a very good example of this twin depiction of social space and social life in a movie. Bachcheha-e Asman is the story of sibling ties between Ali and Zahra Mandegar, who live in downtown Sabzevar, a city in the north-eastern Iran. Karim, father of the two children, works in a tea-house; as the sole earning member of a family with two children and an infant (plus a very sick wife) he is generally hard-pressed to keep his family in comfort. The story revolves round a tenporary crisis affecting the two children over the loss of a pair of shoes, and how Ali and Zahra desperately (and successfully) manage to keep the loss a secret.

Six-year old Zahra had given her shoes to her nine-year old brother Ali for mending, which Ali lost in the market quite by chance. Dreading the furore that would inevitably follow the disclosure of this piece of news, Ali strikes a bargain with Zahra - Zahra was to wear Ali’s shoes to school for the rest of the month, and Ali was to go only when Zahra returned; when at the end of the month, their father received his salary Ali would persuade him to buy Zahra a fresh pair. The movie then goes on to tell the tale of how Zahra and Ali rushed to and from school (occasionally landing Ali in trouble for reaching the school late), how minor frictions began to emerge the two and how Ali managed to assuage Zahra (once, by giving her a pen he was awarded for good academic performance). The story reaches its climax when Ali registered for a longdistance race, which promised a pair of sneakers as the third prize. Ali left for the race with an assurance to Zahra that he would come third in the race and get her a pair of shoes in lieu of the sneakers, but ultimately won the first prize itselfthus failing to win the shoe. The film closes with a crestfallen Ali and a disappointed Zahra worrying about what to do next, even as their father Karim brings a pair of shoes for each of his two children.

Apart from the outstanding performances of Mir Farrokh Hashemin and Behare Siddiqi as Ali and Zahra respectively, the strength of the movie lies in the calibre of Majid Majidi as a director. He tells his story in a very measured manner, often to the extent that the viewer is left wishing that he told a bit more. Thus, in many places in the course of the film and certainly towards the close of the film, he leaves all the clues that the viewer needs to know in order to anticipate what is going to come next, instead of actually playing the sequences out to tedious outcomes.

The most significant feature of this movie is, however, the depiction of the urban landscape in Iran, both societal and geographical with great meticulousness. Sabzevar is a small town in the province of Khorasan in north-eastern Iran, with an economic profile that is reasonably sharply divided along the lines of wealthy merchants and professionals on the one hand, small merchants and petty service providers on the other. Karim Mandegar, father of Ali and Zahra, is located on the lower end of this social spectrum, working in a chaikhaneh (tea-house) - earning enough to pull his family through with some difficulties, but having it easy only at the beginning of the month when he receives his wages. Hailing from the lower echelons of the society, the Mandegars live in a one-room quarter in southern part of the city, as tenants in a tenement building with a reservoir in the middle of the courtyard inside the building–a standing feature of traditional Iranian urban architecture.

In itself, this need not say much to anyone who watches the movie, unless the viewer is acquainted with the context of Iranian society. 20th century Iran witnessed a phenomenal spate of economic development–initially around state-run or -supported industries, then around the surging oil wealth which stimulated almost every sector of Iranian economy from the 1960s–that many other West Asian countries began to witness only from the 1970s. In course of this development, a major demographic change took place in Iran. Being a land of little agricultural opportunities, securing one’s livelihood within the bonds laid down by quasi-feudal tuyuldari (something like a cross between zamindari and taluqdari) tradition had very little charm when contrasted with the opportunities beckoning in the new industrial economy. Hence, since the late 1930s there began a steady and ever-increasing trickle of rural migrants to nearby or even distant towns. In the 1960s, with the onset of land reforms under ‘the White Revolution’, a different set of problems cropped up as lands parcelled out among the peasantry proved too small to be economic. Hence, marginal peasantry from uneconomic holdings began to head for the town en masse and what began as a trickle turned into a tidal wave. The pace of this expansion of the urban population was so fast that although most of the migrants found little problem in securing livelihood, the urban infrastructure did not expand fast enough to provide decent housing. From this period, owners of landed property in Iranian cities began to hire out living quarters to people desperately seeking some accommodation–the rent being deemed useful in an economy where both commodity baskets and commodity prices were changing dramatically. The lure of steady rents brought several one-room accommodations into the market that did not have corresponding amenities (such as attached washrooms, toilets, etc). Houses that had been put up to shelter only a handful of people began to house numbers several times over their capacity–putting a great deal of weight on the municipal system (with respect to removal of garbage, sanitary system, electricity, etc.). This failure of the municipal administration, in fact, proved to be one of the major grievances against the Shah’s regime through the 1960s and 1970s, but people were not unwilling to put up with while the prosperity bubble lasted; once it burst in the late-70s, these grievances of the urban under-class snowballed with other grievances to bring about the revolution of 1979.

The social profile of the Mandegars come out with adequate clarity not only in terms of their living quarters and neighbours (an old couple, living in a similar one-room quarters) but also in terms of the public arena in which the father and two children operate. Because of his profession, Karim is a natural choice for the local ‘alim to serve tea at rowzehkh(w)ani [a gathering of Shi’i people where the tragedy of Karbala is told amidst public expressions of lamentation and weeping] at the mosque in their own locality. Beside the public arena provided by his school, Ali is a keen participant in the sporting activities on the streets of his locality and a dutiful deputy to his father during the rowzehkh(w)ani. Zahra’s public exposure, however, is understandably limited only to her (girls’) school; rest of the time she assists her sick mother with her household chores, because the mother is too ill to work, and the family can’t even dream of maintaining an attendant.

The effects of such limited social exposure come out in a rather poignant manner when Karim is confronted with people above his own social station – he is at a complete loss for words. Working as he does in a tea-house in downtown Sabzevar, Karim hardly ever encountered anyone above the average bazaari (merchant from the bazaar). Till the early 20th century, an avarage bazaari would have been just about the most affluent resident in a city, unless one was an absentee landlord from the countryside. Culturally, such a man would have been rooted in Islam and local Persian, Arab, Turkish, Kurdish, or Azeri tradition–unless, that is, one was Jewish or Armenian. Karim and his likes would have interacted with such men with relative ease, regardless of the social respect due to such bazaaris. From the second half of the 20th century, though, the industrial economy promoted by the Pahlavi regime spawned a generation of nouveau riches entrepreneurs who also tended to hail from a different cultural world. Such entrepreneurs were, to a large extent, the products of the western educational apparatus set up by the Pahlavis – the guiding principle of this system was west-inspired secularism on the one hand, and standardisation of a quasi-westernised Persian culture as the Iranian identity. Hence the class of entrepreneurs who emerged as the principal economic beneficiaries of the Pahlavi regime were culturally alien to the traditional merchant class of the bazaar – this breed of westernised Iranians were supposed to be victims of a malady called gharbadegi (state of intoxication with the west). These entrepreneurs made their peace with the Islamist regime in the immediate aftermath of the revolution of 1979; after a quiescent existence for the duration of the war with Iraq, they once again occupied the centre-stage of Iranian economy. In post-revolution Iran, they rather than the bazaar are the repositories of social wealth. Their wealth increased the social distance that their cultural inclinations had created with the bazaar merchants and the urban underclass which held onto the traditional underpinnings of a person’s identity –faith and local culture.

Majidi’s mastery in depicting the range of urban experiences possible in an Iranian city comes out in his treatment of only one day’s adventure shared between Karim and Ali. Pressed for money, Karim decided to work on his only day of rest – Friday – as a gardener in the private dwellings of richer inhabitants of the city. So he set off one such Friday on his bicycle, taking Ali along with him, heading north. While most Iranian towns and cities hark back to long past and different circumstances in which they originted, almost all Iranian cities have tended to become standardised in one respect in the 20th century. Although the centre of Iranian urban life has continued to revolve around the bazaar (principal market area) – inhabited by the middling classes of the bazaaris – the 20th century has witnessed the lower echelons of the city being gradually pushed farther away to the margins of the city; by contrast, the wealthier sections tend to concentrate towards the other end (usually to the north) of the cities, generally cutting into the hills (or adjacent to the seas, if located on the Caspian Sea or the Persian Gulf) that frequently used to set the city limits at an earlier time. Hence, a resident of lower class neighbourhood in an Iranian city has to traverse virtually the whole city to reach the wealthier neighbourhoods. Majidi brings out this particular aspect of Iranian cities in his very subtle treatment of the journey of the father and son across the length of Sabzevar – beginning from the small buildings of their part of the city, through the middle-class neighburhood of multi-storeyed buildings, finally reaching the posh locality of bungalows and high-walled houses and terraces with gardens.

However, even as Majidi contrasts the material comforts of the wealthier people with the hardships of people like Karim, his treatment is not without a sense of irony in it. After several attempts at hiring out his services as a gardener, Karim finally succeeds in his efforts only when a boy of Ali’s age - Alireza - persuades his grandfather to let Karim work on the garden, so that Alireza could play with Ali. The point being, Ali has hardly any of the material comforts that Alireza was growing up with, but unlike Alireza he does not have to pay in order to be able to play with someone. Equity comes to feature curiously through the back door in this movie. Bachcheha-e Asman is a delight to watch not only for movie-buffs, but also for students of urban life and modern society. It is also a delight for all those who would want to recapture for an hour and a half the innocence of childhood which is frequently lost without being noticed.



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