Cinema in India and Iran: Will past open the doors for future?


April 21, 2009

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We have same beginning, same memories and same cultural roots. Yes this is the story of India and Iran, at the beginning of past century. When first Persian talkie Dokhtar-e-Lor (Lor Girl) produced in India with the help of Ardeshir Irani, a name behind the first Indian talkie ‘Alam-Ara’, was also responsible for first Iranian talkie. Abdolhossein Sepanta made this first Iranian sound film. And the untold story of Indian Cinema begins…

Ardeshir in India, was a writer, director, producer, actor, film distributor, film showman and cinematographer in the silent and sound eras of early Indian cinema. Now we missed the prints of our first talkie in the history but we have the memories of that glorious past and of a joint venture of two real show-mans, those have a dream in their eyes, those made a revolutionary attempt in contemporary Cinema and shaped a future.


A dream comes to reality

Sometimes destiny goes its own way. So looking at the advanced technology available in British India, producer and director Abdolhossein Sepanta realized that he could bring to Iranian Cinema the first talkie film. In 1931, with an acquaintance Ardeshir, a parsi from the local community, Sepanta began production of the Lor Girl. He made his dream into the reality with the help of Ardeshir. The script was written by Sepanta who also acted in the film along with members of the local Parsi community. Production was by a Imperial Film Co. in Bombay. And the most interesting element is the choreography, resembling that of Indian films of the Meena Kumari era.

The movie was the first film with people talking in it as well as one of the first productions in a Muslim country to cast a female. It was still a taboo at that time to broadcast women in film or even radio. Ruhangiz was a volunteer and a wife of a studio employee at the time. This role made her an automatic star who’s fame unfortunately lasted for a short period. In her later years, she moved to Tehran under a changed name and died in old age without any popularity.

The movie was screened in October 1933 in Tehran at two major movie theaters, Mayak Cinema and Sepah Cinema, and was surprisingly a major hit. Contrary to the expectations of Cinema managers, who relied on foreign films, The Lor Girl was an instantaneous success and set up a new record of sale and running period which was not beaten for several years.

The untold story of Sepanta and Irani

Sepanta’s early films were filmed in Bombay with Parsis as organizers and cast of different backgrounds. For some reason, in 1935, Sepanta packed his things and left Bombay for Calcutta to seek out opportunities in the Bengali Cinema. There, he met people from the Muslim Iranian expatriate community mainly from Khurasan. He soon met with Abed Basravi, a man from a moderately religious family that owned the Basravi Masjid in the city. The family had a history of artists, who took a keen interest in a film project. Within months, the shooting of the film began, with Basravi and his two sons, Sepanta, and numerous others from the Calcutta Iranian community as cast members.

This final film, Laili-o-Majnoon, was based on a full-scale dramatic poem by Nezami similar to that of Romeo and Juliet. The Basravi family made many peripherals that added to the script such as detailed information regarding exterior and interior scenes, dialogues, and actors’ movements, settings, costumes, lighting, sound effects and camera movements. They also contributed in making explanatory notes on editing and film processing made that are offered and scene descriptions by carefully worked-out drawings. Though the other 4 scripts are available, none of them show such detailed workmanship.

Due to the changing political climate in Iran, Laili-o-Majnoon never saw any comparable market success. In 1935, he left Kolkata for home, hoping that he could enlist government assistance to establish a film production studio in Iran. However, he failed to gain enough support for his projects from the new government. Sepanta who had been disappointed, sold his Laili-o-Majnoon at a very cheap price to Cinema owners in Tehran, he was about to return to India for the last time to shoot The Black Owl and Omar Khayyám, when he was retained in Esfahan by his mother’s illness. He never came back to India again.

Will we join hands again?

After that in a long time period, at-least 70 years, when these legends vanished in the mist of time, only two year back we got a new rays of hope. Mazid Majidi, known for making films which focus on human emotions and dilemmas like Color of Paradise, Baran and the Oscar nominated, Children of Heaven announced to work with UTV in India. According the news it was a project said to be titled, ‘Kashmir Afloat’.

"For the last couple of years, I have been looking to make a film in India and I have received a lot of offers and when UTV’s Spot Boy approached me, I thought it was an ideal company to work with because I felt that they would support a filmmaker like myself," says Majidi, "I remember the film Sangam with Raj Kapoor. I liked it very much. Back then, even the commercial side of Indian cinema was a bit softer and had a bit more humanity to it. Now, there is less of that. It seems to me a Cinema without identity."

That was just a possibility. We don’t know that project will go ahead or not, but this is not the right time to joint hands again to shape our dreams? Both countries have been created their new identity in world cinema. Now Iranian Cinema and Iranian directors like Samira Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiaritomy and Mazid Majidi are so popular in India that they are everywhere; in the coffee house discussion, in the galleries of film societies and in the paragraphs of film critics.

So if they create a history in the beginning of past century, Indian and Iranian directors should cerate a future for New World Cinema, in the dawn of this century. Will we join hands again?

Original article here.