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The Man Who Was Sold To The World

Authored on August 6, 2010

With clockwork regularity, the more conservative nations of the world have banished artists who played with the illusion of artistic freedom. Perhaps Iran’s most fancy hand-me-down to the West, Abbas Kiarostami is a recent victim of such an aesthetic cleansing.

The filmmaker was forced into a creative exile after his Cannes Palmes d’Or winning film Taste of Cherry (1997) shocked the regime with its lusty exploration of suicide. Screening of his films has been banned in Iran since and this became the turning point of his career; clearly distinguishing what preceded from what was to follow.

Kiarostami’s dark glasses, a result of a medical condition he suffers from, have never shaded his views of the world and cinema which remain eerily clear. He was among the first products of the New Wave in Iran and formed a department of films in the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The shorts and documentaries produced by the department are just as relevant and delightful today as they were in 1969.

With the release of ‘Where is the Friend’s Home?’ in 1987, Kiarostami found international recognition. He shot two more films in the same village creating, what is now known as the ‘Koker trilogy’. The second movie in the sequence documented a real search for the young boy who played the lead in ‘Where is the Friend’s Home’, undertaken after a devastating earthquake hit Iran in 1990.

“I don’t like to engage in telling stories. I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice.” Not a fan of deeply disturbing films, he prefers the ones that are “at least kind enough to allow you a nap and not leave you overwhelmed.” He is also clever in critiquing the Tarantino brand of gory cinema, “Since violence will never leave American film, what Tarantino has done is find a way to make fun of violence, and that brings down the tension of violence.” But when the two shared space on the jury of the 2006 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, Kiarostami heartily praised the American for backing a small film from Kazakhstan.

Cinema may be his strongest love now but there were several other influences like poetry and art. Harvard University Press published ‘Walking with the Wind’, a collection of 200 poems by Kiarostami in Persian and English. His reverence for the art is also evidenced by the effortless weaving of Khayyam’s verses in ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ (1999). He is also a  painter and photographer. It hardly comes as a surprise that Kiarostami’s younger son Bahman directed his first documentary at the age of 15 (Journey to the land of the traveller).

Close-Up (1999) The award winning director discusses the finer points of film making in ‘Ten on Ten’, while also explaining the cinematic quirks he indulges in. This documentary as well as the experimental film ‘Ten’ made in 2000, were shot entirely inside cars with the camera positioned on the side view mirror. ‘Through the Olive Trees’ in 1999 which had Mohamad Ali Keshavarz playing a director, presented a striking picture of the veteran’s film making methods. Shortlisting untrained students from village schools for lead roles borrowing props from locals are prominent Kiarostamian quirks featured here. Close-Up (1990) was another film where Kiarostami referenced himself by talking to his actors from behind the camera.

Kiarostami often likens his films to windows. They come with an uncomplicated view outside of your life and the freedom to look calmly away if you please. In a way, the 70-year-old is a rather romantic journalist, who lends a lyrical beauty to inconvenient truths. The constant switches between fact and fiction in his cinema often leaves the audience feeling like confused voyeurs.

Liberty was never a perk for Kiarostami who maintains that the best art is born “when artists operate in unfavourable circumstances.” In keeping with the law, he would choose non-controversial plots. Usually against a backdrop of quaint villages, his films were innocently modeled around children. Not out of fear of the establishment, but those were the stories he wanted to tell. Curiously, he has always defended the political restrictions in his country, “In the West when I’m asked about censorship, I am offended. They think we are a third world country, with incredible restrictions and we work in terrible conditions. We’ve always had the problem of censorship not just as filmmakers. We deal with it and talking about it in another nation will not solve anything.”

Akira Kurosawa once said of Kiarostami’s films, “Words cannot describe my feelings about them and I simply advice you to see his films. When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed, but after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thank God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”
Copie Conforme (2010)
Increasingly, though, his films have lost that neo-realist, documentary style of narrative. Fiction is now accentuated and he uses seasoned actors, bound scripts and exotic locations. In new-found safety, his leading lady can lay her head on her lover’s shoulder, minus the headscarf. And the film would not be banned for it. A case in point is ‘Copie Conforme’ (Certified Copy), his latest venture set in Tuscany and starring Juliette Binoche. The film has invited comparisons with Roberto Rosellini’s ‘Journey to Italy’, a signal of grim change. Selling out to Europe hardly sits well beside this man who is known to have stamped simplicity onto celluloid. With his dapper looks and fine clothes, he looks comfortable rubbing shoulders with global greats but his best-loved works are still the ones perfumed with an interminable love for Iran.

Using the global media glare to good effect, he turned spokesperson for his friend and colleague Jafar Panahi who was arrested by the Iran government under suspicion of planning anti-national films. “When a filmmaker is imprisoned, it is an attack on the art as a whole. We need explanations. I don’t understand how a film can be a crime, particularly when that film has not been made,” he observed. He even wrote a well publicised letter to the administration that hastened Panahi’s bail procedure.

Kiarostami is a target of mindless rules laid in an erratic system, but we hope he will not give in to wicked voices that may suggest that he quietly resign to “life, and nothing more”.


The Colour of Submission

For years, Chennai’s walls captured the quirks of its favourite faces in garish hues, bestowing the city with exclusive rights to exhibitionism. Green-yellow film stars and black-red politicians beamed down from hand painted billboards. Where the cut outs ended, the sky began. Wars of the ballot and box-office alike were fought in technicolour. At the turn of the decade though, the Eastman style paints that ran in the city’s veins began drying out.

C. Sivakumar at his T. Nagar based "Chella Arts".

C. Sivakumar of Chella Arts, T.Nagar believes everything is digital now, even affection. The 59-year-old is only one of thousands of former cut-out painters. Reluctantly, he reminisces of a time when he got steady orders for portraits but “lately they stick digital images of deceased relatives behind a fancy frame. It is cheaper.”

Seated in the dingy confines of the vinyl printing store cum PCO, he seems disconcertingly comfortable with the state of affairs. “I have not held a brush in five years but I am lucky. Those who couldn’t afford vinyl machinery are still suffering.” Like him, many have embraced the printing industry that stole their jobs.

G. Venkatesan of Jayaram Arts is also representative of the resignation which defines the life of former painters. “The last big projects were when Rajini and Kamal were at the helm of their career. After that, painting assignments grew very rare,” he says. Six years ago, he switched to digital printing and dismissed nearly 30 painters from his 58-year-old establishment at Mount Road. Some of them are now vegetable vendors, security guards and masons.

Rare murals like this one at Adyar Junction are surviving signs of unsanctioned hand-painted art. Other political and cinematic imagery has been done away with.

Few artists like G. Kumar of Saidapet have found ways not to let go of the art. After the lay-off, he broke into the “cine field” and began assisting set designer Rajeevan. Though work includes designing and furnishing, he best loves painting portraits and name boards to use as props. S. Ramesh started an art class in West Mambalam that now has seven students. Returns are nominal, but he is happy to teach the skill even if most students only pursue it as a hobby.

Local arts come with a looming expiry date. The terminal illness that struck cut-out painting was triggered by technology and policy. A 2008 order banned unauthorised hoardings and displays on private walls. The recent municipal wall paintings project seemed an opportunity for painters to shine but Sivakumar discloses, “Pay has moved from the original 30 to as low as four rupees per sq. ft.”

The forthcoming elections too will employ only printed ad campaigns. A hefty boost to vinyl printing is expected. “They prefer vinyl cut-outs which are made fast but tear within days. A painting could take between 10 days and three months to make but they last for years,” rues Venkatesan.

“A photo is a dull recreation of reality. In paintings, we would add shades of pink to the cheeks and green around the sideburns to give a unique finishing,” he observes with a hint of pride. Among his clients are AVM and Ananda Pictures but “they opt for the quick-fix digital cut-outs.” Shops and offices also prefer neon or glow signs.

Bollywood-style painting

Long after its death, Bollywood-style painting has found takers in rich youngsters and expats for whom the art holds kitsch appeal. For 1000 rupees a sq. ft., artists from Mumbai and Delhi create customised posters with the niche buyers painted alongside Bollywood superstars. The trend is yet to unfold in Chennai but Venkatesan doubts that it will, “We have never received such requests.”

Revival sounds a tad romantic even to these men who designed destinies and etched Tamil figures into the viewer’s consciousness. “Renewing this industry will be an uphill task. Artists have lost interest,” says Sivakumar. Then, with strange conviction, he adds – “Still, it will make a comeback.”

You want to believe him till a row of digitised boards confronts you outside the shop, confirming your worst fears.

A Funny Film

My short, unprofessional recollection of the latest offering from Ethan and Joel Coen- ‘A Serious Man’ (2009), nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture:

Larry Gopnick is not an evil man and he is trying to be serious. Mostly, he is a man you want to hug and wish well. This is hopefully why Sy (Fred Melamed), the man Larry’s wife is about to leave him for, holds him close every time they meet.

You shouldn’t lose sleep if you “did not ‘get’ A Serious Man” because that is the point the Coen brothers seem to be making. It is not important to get, understand or even search for answers to everything. That is also the point the protagonist refuses to accept. To him, everything is mathematics, including Physics. All events must have an absolute and tangible explanation. You are sure to have known at least one figure of reference whose personality matches Larry’s exactly.

There can be no spoilers here for revealing all would still mean revealing nothing. As the ‘dybbuk’ scene that it opens with would testify, the film is as random as the probability theory.

The Gopnicks are fully dysfunctional – Larry is boring with a surly wife who wants out. He has an anti-social brother addicted to gambling, a beauty obsessed daughter and junkie son. Even their neighbours are ungodly.

Murphy’s Law seems to have taken over the wannabe-permanent-professor’s life.So help from the Gods is soon to be sought. The quest for enlightenment that follows provides consistent laughs, one Rabbi after another. Again, you shouldn’t lose sleep if you do not find the sequences funny. Humour in the works of this duo has never been universally approved.

Micheal Stulhbarg (as Larry), slightly reminiscent of Robin Williams, comes out of nowhere with a stellar performance. Whoever designed the quirk of him walking daily into school with briefcase clutched tight to his chest is genius. The rest of the cast too is relatively new and brings along fresh talent. Aaron Wolff as a jaded and reckless teenager (Danny Gopnick) is particularly impressive.

The art and cinematography crew make the 60’s come alive such that you ache to be there. Jefferson Airplane has been resurrected in style, and the band’s music woven effortlessly into the script.

The wide open ending makes you wonder first, and then nod in partial realisation. Of nothing in particular. ‘A Serious Man’ is existentialism explored.