Incredibly unbelievable and dichotomous as it may seem, Iran while letting the controversy-raking film, Muhammad: The Messenger of God, screen across the country, has chosen to keep the famous movie director, Jafar Panahi, under house arrest of sorts. He has also been banned from making movies for 20 years, a restriction imposed in 2010.

Panahi's Taxi is multi-layered film highly critical of Iran's leadership
Panahi’s Taxi is multi-layered film highly critical of Iran’s leadership

If Muhammad: The Messenger of God has not evoked any protest in Iran — while the film has led to a fatwa being issued in India against its internationally celebrated director, Majidi Majidi, and its Oscar winning Indian music composer, A.R. Rahman — it merely conveys  the maturity of the Iranian masses. And perhaps, a trace of changing attitude among the ruling clergy in Tehran.

The political bosses in Iran must be beginning to realise that art can never be chained or throttled. And Panahi is a brilliant example of this. There is a candid scene in his latest movie, Taxi — which the auteur helmed in cocky defiance of the ban, and had it smuggled into the Berlin Film Festival, where it walked away with the top Golden Bear award!

In that scene, Panahi, who plays a cab driver, listens to his 11-year-old niece — who reminds him about the rules of making a movie in Iran. Some of these are: respect Islamic headscarves, avoid contact between men and women, avoid violence, avoid discussing political or economic issues, avoid sordid realism…. Driver Panahi smiles, and both understand how impossible it is then to make a film.

Taxi is multi-layered. It is as much a rebuke to Iran’s leadership as it is a celebration of artistic freedom, got, though, clandestinely.

Taxi is the third movie made unauthorisedly by Panahi in these five years he has  been living under the ban. The director dons a cabbie’s uniform, hops into a taxi, places a small camera on the dashboard and ferries all kinds of passengers in Teheran.

No government approval was sought, no script was given to the authorities, and amateur actors were used — many of them real passengers who hailed Panahi’s cab!

At a time when international interest in Iran has been heightened by the nuclear accord, Taxi offers a rare glimpse into a cross section of Iranian society. Panahi gets to talk to an injured man, a purveyor of pirated DVDs, a human rights lawyer and two old women off to visit a religious shrine. And all this happens in the course of a day as Panahi drives along the streets of Iran’s capital city.

“The genius of Jafar is that of course he’s working in the tradition of the Persian miniature,” said theatre director Peter Sellars, who introduced Taxi at the Telluride Film Festival early this month. “You can do some tiny, tiny gesture which is a whole universe. And inside the miniature — a series of cab rides — is in fact a portrait of his whole country.” So aptly said!

What is more, the movie does not come across as the ranting of an angry man. It is witty. It is normal. It is metaphorical and it is real.

Panahi is 55, and one of Iran’s best regarded helmers who worked as an army cinematographer during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. In 1995, he made The White Balloon, a neo-realist film about a little girl and her search for a goldfish.

It was Panahi’s The Circle (2000) which angered the clergy, and obviously so, because the movie was a searing critique of the condition of women in Iran. The film was promptly proscribed, but Panahi being Panahi, had it smuggled into the Venice Film Festival, where it won the top Golden Lion prize.

Nine years later, Panahi, who was part of the Green Movement (which sought to remove President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), made a movie on it. He was arrested in 2010, and had to spend three months at the notorious Evin prison before he was released. In jail, he went on a hunger strike — which got the government so nervous that it let him out, but kept him under house arrest.

In 2011– just a year into his sentence — Panahi secretly shot a film in his own house from the script of a movie he was planning before misfortune overtook him. He called it This Is Not A Film, copied it in a pen-drive, hid it inside a cake and smuggled it into Cannes. The Festival screened it.

Once, Cannes placed an empty chair on the dais during the inaugural evening to tell the world that it missed Panahi, who was to have been on the jury that year.

Cannes could not care less. For the Festival, artistic liberty came first, political and other considerations could only come later.

This emboldened Panahi, and he went on to make two more movies. His second film during the ban was called Closed Curtain. It was made in a hush-hush manner in the auteur’s villa on the Caspian Sea, and narrated the story of a writer who hid his dog in a secluded house — afraid that the authorities will kill his pet and punish him. Dogs are considered unclean under the Islamic law.

Panahi’s third and latest work, Taxi (also made on the sly), drew Iran’s ire when it was shown in Berlin. Hojatollah Ayoubi, the head of the Iranian government’s Cinema Organization, published an open letter to the Berlin Film Festival saying that it was “fomenting misunderstanding by celebrating a moviemaker whose work is banned”.

But Berlin, like Cannes, could not care less. And neither the French government nor the German administration (or even the Italians) interfered with their festivals’ decision. And, it may not be an exaggeration to conclude that artists like Panahi survive and shine only because they have the courage of conviction to dare the authorities, and these men have the support of festivals like Cannes, Venice and Berlin — which tell the world that artistic creations must be seen and savoured — however contentious they may be.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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