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Iran Drama and Cinema

Iran Drama and Cinema

Drama and cinema in contemporary Iran can be said to have some roots in

older, more traditional forms of similar cultural activities. The fi rst type of

dramatic expression, for example, was probably connected to the veneration

by ancient Iranians of the sun-god Mithra, when worshipers constructed a

public stage and wore masks to perform certain religious rituals. We also

know that after Alexander’s invasion of Iran, performances of Greek plays

were held there well into Parthian times. As discussed in an earlier chapter,

dramatized presentations of the epic stories and legends of ancient Iran were

performed by bards ( gosân s) and storytellers ( naqqâl s) in Parthian, Sasanid,

and early Islamic times, and later on the Shi‘ite passion-play ( ta‘ziyeh ) became

a well-established form of dramatic presentation. The Turks and Mongols

also brought some customs of popular drama and public performances such

as shadow-puppet plays to Iran. Iranian rulers often patronized jesters, entertainers,

and other performers for the amusement of the court elites. For

ordinary people, the bazaars and public squares were places where jugglers,

magicians, comedians, storytellers, and entertainers offered their dramatic

performances to the public.

In addition to ta‘ziyeh and naqqâli , traditional forms of dramatic

performance include those known as ruhowzi or siâh-bâzi, pardeh-dâri,

and khaymeh-shab-bâzi . Ruhowzi is a comic type of folk drama similar to

commedia dell‘arte but with rapid verbal rather than physical humor. It is

often performed at weddings and at teahouses. It is called ruhowzi or “over

the pool” because it is typically performed on a board placed over the pool

commonly found in the yard of a Persian home. Ruhowzi usually involves

several players engaging in comic dance, music, and song. The dialogue is

94 Culture and Customs of Iran

colloquial and fi lled with satirical impersonations of local people and events.

The play often involves participation by, or exchanges with, the spectators.

Pardeh-dâri is performed by a single narrator who chants a narrative, using

a screen with pictures as a prop to illustrate the story he is telling. This is

somewhat similar to naqqâli except that the subjects of the story are usually of

a religious nature. Khaymeh-shab-bâzi is basically puppet theater, performed

with glove dolls or marionettes.


Cinema in Iran has its origins in the foibles of court entertainment in

the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In 1900, the Qâjâr king,

Mozaffar-od-Din Shah, went to France for a state visit. While there, he

became fascinated with the camera and what it could do. He ordered his

photographer, Mirzâ Ebrâhim ‘Akkâsbâshi, to buy a cinematograph. Later,

using the newly acquired equipment, Mirzâ Ebrâhim documented the presence

of Mozaffar-od-Din Shah at a ceremony in Belgium. This documentary

is the fi rst fi lm made by an Iranian. Mirzâ Ebrâhim brought his camera

equipment back to Iran, and the king set up a demonstration for the court.

The king also had a movie made of court eunuchs playing with each other

in the palace courtyard. Film had become a part of court entertainment, and

the various fi lms made by Mirzâ Ebrâhim probably represent the fi rst ethnographic

footage taken in the history of Iranian fi lm.

Films made during the Qâjâr period may be divided into three categories:

documentation of court ceremonies, social-cultural scenes around the capital,

and scripted action fi lms. Royal and religious ceremonies were often fi lmed,

and the fi lms would later be shown at weddings of members of the elite, at

family gatherings, or at court parties. Also, a number of documentaries were

produced in this period.

In 1905, Mirzâ Ebrâhim Khan Sahhâfbâshi, an antique dealer, was the

fi rst private entrepreneur to import a fi lm projector to Iran. He converted

the backyard of his shop into an open-air theater and began public screening

of fi lms in Tehran. He showed a mostly upper class audience silent movies

imported to Iran via Russia. The fate of this courageous venture was thrown

into controversy when rumors circulated claiming that the fi lms shown there

included unveiled female characters. This led to condemnation by the religious

leader  yatollâh Fazlollah Nuri, who demanded the closure of the

theater. This, along with other political problems, resulted in the closure

of Sahhâfbâshi’s theater, confi scation of his fi nancial assets, and his exile to

India in 1907.

Drama and Cinema 95

Under the patronage of Mohammad-‘Ali Shah, a Russian-born court

photographer, Mahdi Rusi Khân, became a cinema manager and replaced

Sahhâfbâshi as a presenter of fi lms for elite viewers in Tehran. In 1909, Rusi

Khân made a fi lm of the Moharram mourning processions, but it was only

shown in Russia. With the restoration of the Constitution and the exile of

Mohammad-‘Ali Shah, Rusi Khân fell out of favor and his fi lms were con-

fi scated. Though the new theater he had opened on the second fl oor of a

printing shop in Lâlehzâr Avenue remained open for a while, he decided to

leave Iran for Paris in 1911 .

By 1912, a number of movie theaters had been built, mostly by foreignborn

Iranians, especially from Russia. The only person who was able to keep

his theater open for more than a decade was an Armenian businessman by the

name of Ardashir Khân Bâtmângariân. His theater, known as Sinemâ Jadid

(“New Cinema”), opened in 1913 in collaboration with a French company.

A unique contributor to the evolution of cinema in Iran was an elderly French

woman by the name of Mme Bernadotte. She owned a bookstore in Tehran

and sometimes showed newsreels and war documentaries in a small projection

room to her predominantly French-speaking customers. It is reported that

some of these fi lms contributed to the spirit of nationalism at the time and

generated a stir amongst the Iranian public. Some people, however, accused

her of witchcraft, claiming that she called forth Satan on the screen—accusations

which resulted in the closure of her “little cinema.” Another contribution

to the development of fi lm culture was the Iranian-British Cultural Center,

which in the 1920s screened documentaries to a select group of Iranians.

In the 1920s and 1930s, more movie houses were established. In 1925, ‘Ali

Vakili was able to build the largest movie theater at the time in the Grand

Hotel on Lâlehzâr Avenue and later published the fi rst magazine on show

business in Iran. At the beginning of Rezâ Shah’s rule, there were 8 theaters

in Tehran. By the early 1930s, there were 15 theaters in Tehran and 11 in

other provinces. The existence of such an infrastructure encouraged people

to attend movie theaters.

Movies made during this period included some documentaries by Khân

Bâbâ Khân Mo‘tazedi, who had previously worked with a fi lm studio in

France. The fi rst Iranian-made feature fi lms also began to appear. The main

pioneer in this effort was an Armenian immigrant, Hovhannes Ohanian

(Âvânes Uhâniân), who established an acting school in Iran in 1930. With

actors from this school and Mo‘tazedi as his cameraman, he made a popular

slapstick comedy, Âbi o Râbi (“Abi and Rabi”) that same year. This was

followed in 1932 by Hâji Âqâ âktor-e sinemâ (“Haji Aqa, Movie Actor”)—the

story of a woman and her fi ancé who wanted to become fi lm actors but had to

96 Culture and Customs of Iran

defuse the opposition of her religiously-minded father to their plan. The script

was written by one of the most prominent Iranian authors of the time, Sa‘id

Nafi si, and the fi lm employed an Armenian woman, Asia Ghostantin, as the

actress. The fi lm was meant to demonstrate the desirability of the new media

through the use of humor. This blend of comedy and melodrama would

remain a popular genre of Iranian fi lm into the 1970s. One of Ohanian’s

students, Ebrâhim Morâdi, established his own studio and released a fi lm in

1934 called Bu‘l-hawas (“The Lustful Man”). This fi lm contrasted the simple

and natural life in rural areas with the unexpected and often uncomfortable

aspects of city life—another durable theme in Iranian cinema. This was also

the last Iranian feature production done within Iran’s borders until the end of

the World War II. Morâdi’s efforts were very important for the new industry

in Iran. He also employed the fi rst two Iranian Muslim women to work as

actresses, namely Qodsi Partovi and Âsieh.

The fi rst Persian-language movie with sound, Dokhtar-e Lor (“The

Lor Girl”), was made in Bombay in 1933 by ‘Abd-ol-Hosayn Sepantâ, a

Zoroastrian poet and writer from Isfahan. Sepântâ wrote the script for the

fi lm and also played the role of the character Ja‘far in this movie. “The Lor

Girl” was such a success that it landed Sepantâ an offer from the Iranian

government to produce fi lms about the glory of the country’s past and

the desirability of a modern lifestyle, but this did not work out exactly as

intended. In 1935 the Ministry of Education commissioned Sepantâ to

make a fi lm about the life of the poet Abo‘l-Qâsem Ferdowsi, but parts of

his fi lm Ferdowsi were rejected and had to be redone because the shah did

not like the fi lm’s negative portrayal of Sultan Mahmud. Sepantâ continued

to produce movies inspired by classical Persian literature and Iranian

history, but mostly outside the country and without government support.

Sepantâ’s last fi lm Layli o Majnun, based on the classical love story of Layli

and Majnun, appeared in 1937. With their use of Persian dialog accompanied

by songs, music, and dance, Sepantâ’s fi lms were quite popular, but a

combination of political, fi nancial, and bureaucratic diffi culties forced him

to leave the movie industry.



The introduction of modern fi lm to a traditional Iran was not without its

sociological problems. As mentioned earlier, cinema started as a court entertainment

and remained available only to the cultural and political elite for

over a decade. When the government began to encourage this industry, it still

had to confront the opposition of the ‘olamâ and a public unprepared and

Drama and Cinema 97

unwilling to do away with traditional modes of entertainment. Theaters were

declared by the ‘olamâ to be centers for all kinds of vices. They were labeled

“houses of Satan” and subjected to mob attack or forced closure. The public

perception marked people attending theaters as “immoral people engaged in

sinful activity.” In light of these criticisms, theater owners and others involved

in this industry, along with government offi cials, took great pains to promote

the theater as a respectable place that the police prevented “loose women,

depraved youngsters and hecklers” from entering. On one occasion during

Rezâ Shah’s reign, the opposition to the establishment of the fi rst theater in

the southern part of Tehran, which was and still is very traditional, was so

strong that police had to force people to go to this theater.

At a more practical level, in the early years the government had to make

special efforts to keep the cost of attending movie theaters low enough to

attract nonelite segments of the society. This was a problem for theater owners

as well. As the number of movie theaters increased, theater owners had to

compete for viewers. They tried to attract viewers by offering free tickets, ice

creams, nuts, and other food items. Some owners even hired musicians to

play music, interpreters to walk around the hall and explain the scenes in a

loud voice, and Armenian female employees with heavy makeup in order to

attract viewers.

A second problem had to do with the translation and presentation of foreign

fi lms. Since fi lms shown in the early days were in their original language,

there had to be brief pauses for live translation. Every 10 minutes or so, the

fi lm would be interrupted by a Persian caption explaining previous or forthcoming

events. Some theaters hired story tellers to convey what was involved

in the fi lms so they did not have to stop the show intermittently. It also took

a while for the Iranian viewers, unaccustomed to the new technology, to

know how to adjust their feelings and behaviors to the realities of this new

phenomenon. Some cinemas had to hire policemen to control the viewers’

behavior during the show. On one occasion, when a lion jumped in a scene

of a Tarzan fi lm, a policeman attending the theater shot at the screen in an

attempt to subdue the lion!

The third problem confronting the development of a fi lm culture was the

presence of women both in the fi lm and in the theater. By 1920, Iranian

fi lm viewers were used to seeing unveiled women in foreign movies. However,

showing Iranian women in fi lm was a new challenge for fi lmmakers and

theater owners. Since the fi rst Iranian fi lms involved Armenian women of

Iranian origin, there was not much public objection. However, when fi lms

with sound were produced, the participation of Muslim women in fi lmmaking

became a major controversial issue. The fi rst actresses were subjected

to ridicule, harassment, and social isolation. These were courageous women

98 Culture and Customs of Iran

whose passion for the art and profession surpassed their need for income or

a costly fame. The perseverance of these actresses and their fi lm producers

paved the way for breaking a social taboo and easing modern media into

Iranian society.

A related problem was how to allow women to visit the theater because it

was not possible to allow men and women to attend the theater at the same

time. Theaters experimented with having dedicated hours for each sex. This

did not work well. Later, they tried to designate some theaters as exclusively

for women. Mo‘tazedi founded two such theaters for women in 1925, and

three years later, Vakili created a female-only theater in a Zoroastrian school

hall. This did not work well for attracting women to the theater either. Also,

it was fi nancially ineffi cient. Then, they tried to allow both sexes in the same

theater, but with women seated in the balcony. This did not last long either.

Finally, they tried having women and men sit in separate parts of the theater.

This worked until 1936, when women were freed from wearing the veil by the

order of Rezâ Shah and wives could sit next to their husbands in the theater.

A fi nal problem had to do with the spread of cinema beyond the capital,

especially in areas with a heavy concentration of ethnic population. Since

not all ethnic groups spoke or even understood the Persian language, showing

fi lms to non-Persian speaking audiences posed a serious challenge. For

instance, Sinemâ Khorshid in the city of Abâdân, then heavily populated by

Arabs, could not stay open more than three nights a week because of the lack

of an audience, even with free admission.


With the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty, the secularized state became

a social and cultural force to encourage the spread of new ideas through new

modes of communication. Rezâ Shah was a strong leader determined to push

modernization of Iran against any opposition, even from the religious quarters.

He supported the fi lm industry as long as the fi lmmakers produced newsreels

documenting the rapid development of the country’s infrastructure. His

attitude paved the way for the growth of contemporary art forms, particularly

cinema in Iran. While the industry was in its infancy and in need of support,

Rezâ Shah’s rule was also new and in need of means to demonstrate its power.

Rezâ Shah saw cameras as tools to show the country as he wanted it to be

seen. No one could even own a camera without authorization from a court.

He hired Khân Bâbâ Mo‘tazedi to fi lm various ceremonies at the palace, the

parliament, and the opening ceremonies of the trans-Iranian railway system,

the National Bank of Iran, and the Pahlavi communication center. These

newsreels were shown at court, in army barracks, and at some theaters.

Drama and Cinema 99

After viewing an impressive documentary about the Anglo-Persian Oil

Company in Khuzestân, Rezâ Shah ordered the construction of new movie

theaters in Tehran. Lâlehzâr, a street in what was then the north of Tehran, but

is now in the middle of the city, was where the theaters were built, along with

European-style hotels. Lâlehzâr became an attractive location in Tehran for

movie houses and was viewed as a venue for lovers, pleasure seekers, and those

seeking amusement. Rezâ Shah’s program thus found a receptive audience

among the country’s elite and the relatively small middle class. Since all the

movie theaters were located in the northern part of Tehran, the government

provided aid to build a theater in the southern part of Tehran in a poor

neighborhood. Sinemâ Tamaddon (“Civilization Cinema”) was built there

as a symbol of the shah’s determination to educate the Iranian population to

modern ways of life.

Once attendance by the so-called lower classes increased, a new hierarchy

emerged among theater halls: elite and popular theaters. The former showed

high-quality fi lms of the time and were attended by educated people who were

familiar with the Western literature from which those fi lms were adopted.

The latter showed foreign, comic, and action and adventure fi lms and were

attended by the less sophisticated public. Interestingly, the music played in

these theaters was also geared to this hierarchy: whereas the elite theaters played

Western music, the popular theaters played popular Persian music.

Unfortunately, most fi lms shown during Rezâ Shah’s reign were imported

fi lms from Europe, the United States, and Russia. His cultural policies fostered

a favorable environment for the infl ux of Western fi lms. During 1928–

1930, over 1,000 foreign fi lms were imported into Iran, nearly half of them

from the U.S. and the rest from France, Germany, Russia, and other countries.

As Rezâ Shah’s sympathy to Germany increased, so did the number of

German fi lms shown in Iran. This was also helped by the absence of security

prerequisites on foreign exchange to purchase German fi lms.

Not surprisingly, Rezâ Shah’s cultural policies fostered an environment

openly conducive to the infl ux of Western fi lms. American fi lms fl ooded Iranian

market during the 1920s, and German fi lms gained a signifi cant market

share towards the turn of the decade and well into the 1930s. The success

of the later was not unrelated to Germany’s increased cultural and technical

presence in Iran following World War I. While this fl ood of American

and German fi lms into the country enabled the expansion of a foreign fi lm

market in Iran, it inhibited the development of the local fi lm industry. With

Rezâ Shah’s departure in 1941, German fi lms rapidly disappeared from the

landscape of Iranian cinema, as was the case with most French productions

as well. The result was an increase in American fi lms, rising from 60 percent

in 1940 to 70–80 percent by 1943. In the 1930s, signifi cantly more theatre

100 Culture and Customs of Iran

halls opened. The young Iranian fi lm industry also demonstrated its capacity

for local production, no matter how limited.



From 1937 till 1947, foreign fi lms continued their dominance, and Iran

did not produce any fi lms locally. During the 1940s, numerous restrictions

were imposed on Iranian cinema resulting in the stagnation of local production.

World War II also caused serious political and economic diffi culties

for the country and brought the fragile Iranian motion picture industry to a

virtual standstill. Yet, as mentioned before, foreign movies poured into the

Iranian market and a sizable portion of the growing Iranian working class

and the emerging middle class was attracted to fi lm as a form of legitimate

entertainment. This was not lost on investors in the motion picture industry.

To satisfy the newly-developed appetite, more movie theaters were built, and

the industry found dubbing of foreign fi lms into Persian as both an improvement

in the quality of services provided to viewers and a profi table venture.

A number of producers began dubbing foreign movies outside of Iran and

then importing them to Iran for competition with Hollywood movies. One

of these was a young Iranian, Esmâ‘il Kushân, who dubbed two foreign fi lms

in Turkey and imported them to Tehran for show in 1946 with spectacular

success. Soon, local dubbing studios were set up, creating competition for

foreign operations.

As early as 1943, the fi rst dubbing studio, called Iran-Now Film, was

established in Tehran. By 1961, dubbing foreign fi lms into Persian in

Europe ended, and almost all foreign fi lms were dubbed in Iran. Utilizing the

availability of improved technical facilities as well as comparatively more costeffective

local dubbers and actors, the local studios were able to create products

superior in quality to fi lms dubbed in Italy. Some of these studios later engaged

in fi lm production as well. Dubbing was challenging, but the industry was

able to overcome most of its early diffi culties. Interestingly, dubbing provided

Iranians with both an opportunity for creativity and censorship. In the case of

creativity, Iranian dubbers adjusted dialogues, and even music, to Iranian taste

by utilizing Persian idioms close to the foreign expression used in the original

dialogue. For instance, a song by Jerry Lewis in the movie Patsy was replaced

with an Indian song in order to fi t the Iranian taste, which was much closer to

Indian culture than to American. In terms of censorship, “morally unacceptable

words” were replaced by sanitized Persian equivalents. In turn, dubbed

movies came to stifl e Iranian originality by getting Iranian viewers so much

used to their plots and dialogues that Iranian producers began to dub local

Drama and Cinema 101

production and actors emulated their foreign counterparts’ use of infl ection

and tone. For instance, Mohammad-‘Ali Fardin’s voice in Gedâyân-e Tehrân

(“The Beggars of Tehran”) was a direct imitation of Peter Falk’s voice in A

Pocketful of Miracles. Also, the majority of fi lms were shot on location without

sound—sound was introduced later into the fi lm through dubbing in studios.

Except for those actors who had the benefi t of stage experience, most actors

in the fi lm industry lacked appropriate vocal abilities—their voices would be

replaced by dubbers who accentuated aural effects and otherwise compensated

for these actors’ shortcomings.

A number of business organizations, jointly fi nanced by both Americans

and Iranians, were set up exclusively to produce fi lms. These centers facilitated

the transfer of technical know-how and related information to Iranians,

particularly in the art of producing newsreels and documentary fi lms. The

American presence in Iran during World War II also contributed to this

expansion. The United States Information Service (USIS) in Iran began to

distribute documentary and news fi lms, dubbed into Persian, throughout the

country. The Iranian government used 40 mobile cinema units to show these

fi lms to villagers and town people. In 1951, 60 fi lms and 38 strips “on technical

and instructional themes” were produced and distributed. Between 1951

and 1953, a number of magazines dealing specifi cally with acting and cinema

appeared: ‘Âlam-e Honar, Sinemâ va Teâtr, Setâreh-e Sinemâ, and Payk-e

Sinemâ. After the overthrow of Mosaddeq’s government in 1953, the shah’s

new cultural policy of favoring Western products, especially American fi lms,

contributed to an increase in screening of foreign fi lms in local cinemas. The

number of foreign fi lms shown in Iran increased from 100 in 1953 to close

to 400 in 1961. This was due to a general lack of support for domestic fi lms

by the government, an increase in taxation on local fi lms, and a reduction in

duty on imports of foreign fi lms.


Following World War II, a breakthrough for Iranian cinema came when

Esmâ‘il Kushân channeled his profi ts from dubbing foreign fi lms into the

production of fi lms with sound in Iran. In 1947, he established a fi lm studio,

Mitrâ Film, followed by the production of Iran’s fi rst feature-length sound fi lm

in 1948, Tufân-e zendegi (“The Tempest of Life”), directed by Mohammad-

‘Ali Daryâbaygi. Despite the magnitude of its achievement, the movie did

generate any enthusiasm and resulted in a fi nancial loss, thus forcing some

of Kushân’s colleagues to abandon him. Despite serious diffi culties, Kushan

opened Pârs Film studio, under which his fi rst venture was Zendâni-e amir

(“The Prince’s Prisoner,” 1948), followed by his independently produced

102 Culture and Customs of Iran

musical comedy the next year, called Vâryeteh-ye bahâr (“The Spring Festival”) .

Hushang Kâvosi, producer of Yusuf o Zolaykhâ (“Joseph and Zolaykha”) , was

one of the fi rst directors working at Pârs Film. Kushân’s efforts were followed

by Farrokh Ghaffâri’s introduction of Iranians to alternative and artistic

foreign fi lms. Ghaffâri founded the National Iranian Film Society at the Irân

Bâstân Museum in 1947, and directed his fi rst successful fi lm, Janub-e shahr


Though Kushân’s earlier fi lms received somewhat lukewarm reactions, the

release of his new fi lm, Sharmsâr (“Disgraced”) , was signifi cant due to his

employment of a heavy dose of songs and music—an imitation of Indian

movies that remained very popular in post–World War II Iran. An Iranian

ballet group that had successfully performed in Europe was in this movie

about a rural girl who is seduced by an urban boy and then become a successful

performer in a cabaret in the city. The impact of “Disgraced” extended into

promoting the career of the female singer, Delkash, who sang eight songs for

the fi lm. Delkesh became the fi rst popular singer involved with the cinema.

The success of “Disgraced” laid the foundation for commercial fi lmmaking

in Iran, encouraging investors, producers, and directors to view fi lm

production as a potentially lucrative venture. Kushan’s success opened up

a different avenue for fi lmgoers who were no longer interested in subtitled

fi lms— Persian-language fi lms featuring renowned Iranian singers and dancers

became a real and attractive alternative. Furthermore, “Disgraced” also added

another layer to the popular themes which were to dominate Iranian cinema

for decades: simplicity of rural life versus corrupted city life, innocence of

rural girls versus deceptive city men, and rich versus poor lovers whose parents

opposed their union—themes that came to defi ne what scholars later called

Film Fârsi. These were dreamlike melodramas imitating Indian movies. The

happy endings offered an optimistic view of the society and changed viewers’

taste for movies. Much of their content were copied from stage productions—

stories which, in turn, were drawn from classical Persian literature.

A period of urban expansion and rural-urban migration in the 1950s and

1960s saw the expansion of a cinematic culture in the country, an increase in

commercial fi lm production, and growth in the number of cinemas all over

the country. Most fi lms produced in this period were adaptations of novels,

plays, and Western fi lms. While high in quantity (over 1,000), the quality

of these fi lms was not very good because production companies focused

mainly on profi t and pandered to the common tastes of the public for love

stories, sex, violence, and horror. Sâmuel Khâchikiân was a major director

involved in production of such fi lms. Others included Majid Mohseni ( Lât-e

javânmard, “The Gentleman Vagabond,” based on Sâdeq Hedâyat’s short

story, “Dâsh Âkol”); Bolbol-e mazra‘eh , “The Nightingale of the Farm,”

Drama and Cinema 103

1957; and Parastu-hâ be-lâneh barmigardan , “Swallows Come Back to the

Nest,” 1963); ‘Atâollah Zâhed ( Chashm be-râh , “In Waiting,” 1958), and

Farrokh Ghaffâri, whose “Downtown” (1958) was banned by authorities

after fi ve days of showing. Mohseni’s “The Gentleman Vagabond” was the

fi rst fi lm in Iranian cinema to focus on the prototype of the jâhel (a kind of

good-hearted hooligan), thus setting the tone for over 200 similar productions

during the 1960s. Films in this period, fi lled with music and dance and

focused on melodramatic themes of traditional hooliganism ( jâheli ), love,

and simple contrasts of rural purity and innocence versus urban corruption

and decadence or good guys (lower class and poor) versus bad guys (emerging

upper middle class and rich), were to be characterized in the 1970s with

the negative label of Film Fârsi.

The number of fi lms produced in this decade ushered Iranian cinema

into what many would consider a phase of professional development during

which an overwhelming majority of productions were grounded in Film Fârsi.

Several important actors associated with this genre of fi lms were Taqi Zohuri,

Esmâ‘il Arhâm Sadr, Nosratollâh Vahdat, Mohammad-‘Ali Fardin, and Nâser

Malakmoti‘i. Some actresses in this category included Puribanâi, Foruzân, and

Jamileh. In 1965, a “poor boy meets rich girl” tale used by Siâmak Yâsami’s

Ganj-e Qârun (“Qârun’s Treasure”) became a box offi ce hit. This was a combination

of love and family melodrama with a heavy dose of comedy and musical.

As such, it was a sequenced imitation of fantasized Hollywood productions

whose revenue surpassed any fi lm ever produced in Iran up to that time. It also

became a model for many fi lms to be produced in the coming decade. This fi lm,

and the others subsequently made in imitation of it, generated enough support

for Iranian domestic production to withstand the onslaught of foreign fi lms.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, young critics and new fi lmmakers, who

had studied fi lm in Western universities, returned home. They were familiar

with modern techniques and sensitive towards artistic quality and technical

standards in the fi lm. Their views refreshed the movie scene with new ideas

different from common tradition. They viewed Iranian fi lms produced in the

1950s and 60s as “inferior,” both technically and artistically. They certainly

had a cultural bias as well: those fi lms glorifi ed the working class, peasants,

and artisans as well as their culture.

Towards the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, while commercial fi lms

gradually gained a foothold in Iranian cinema, the new fi lmmakers challenged

the Film Fârsi establishment not only by criticism but also by making their

own fi lms. Some of these fi lms included Forugh Farrokhzâd’s documentary

104 Culture and Customs of Iran

about people affl icted with leprosy, Khâneh siâh ast (“The House is Black”) in

1962, Ebrâhim Golestân’s Kesht o âyeneh (“Mudbrick and Mirror”) in 1965,

and Shâhrokh Ghaffâri’s Shab-e quzi (“The Night of the Hunchback”) in

1964. These fi lms were works meant to be categorized as “art fi lms” or “intellectual”

or “progressive.” Siâvosh dar Takht-e Jamshid (“ Siavosh at Persepolis ”)

was produced by the poet, Fereydun Rahnemâ, in 1967. In the same year,

Dâvud Mo‘lâpur produced Showhar-e Âhu Khânom (“Mrs. Ahu’s Husband”)

based on a popular novel of the same name by ‘Ali-Mohammad Afghâni.

Based on a script by Gholâm-Hosayn Sa‘edi, Daryush Mehrjui made the

celebrated fi lm Gâv (“The Cow”) in 1968. Other fi lms included: Moghol-hâ

(“The Mongols”) by Parviz Kimiâvi in 1973; Cheshmeh (“The Spring”) by

Ârbi Âvânesiân in 1970; an adaptation of Sâdeq Chubak’s novel Tangsir by

Amir Nâderi in 1973;, Yek ettefâq-e sâdeh (“A Simple Incident”) by Sohrâb

Shahid-Sâles in 1973, Qeysar in 1967 and Khâk (“The Earth”) in 1973 by

Mas‘ud Kimiâi; Toqi by ‘Ali Hâtami in 1969; and Gharibeh va meh (“The

Stranger and the Fog”) by Bahrâm Bayzâi in 1974.

These new fi lms questioned the old cinematic tradition in content, form, and

even technique and offered Iranian viewers an alternative cinema. They came

to be known as the “New Wave” ( mowj-e now ). The New Wave represented

“committed art” which demanded refl ection and social responsibility, rather

than escapist entertainment where the viewer remains passive and receptive.

As was to be expected, their thematic content attracted substantial disfavor

from the Iranian censors. What proved controversial was the stark realities

they portrayed, often highlighting issues which until that point had been

hidden from the public eye. Mo‘lâpur’s “Mrs. Ahu’s Husband,” for instance,

concerned itself with the issue and implications of polygamy in Iranian

society. Some other fi lms which sparked controversy, particularly with the

censorship authorities, were Ghaffâri’s “The Night of the Hunchback” and

Farrokhzâd’s “The House is Black.” Films categorized in this genre were

much less optimistic about the direction of society and often symbolically

criticized prevailing cultural norms and policies. They were also considered

subversive to the dominant political system and viewed as antiestablishment

for challenging, either overtly or covertly, the status quo.

Another feature of some of the New Wave fi lms was their focus on universal

issues surpassing national considerations. These fi lms strived to deal with

basic human questions and conditions that transcended the Iranian context.

That is why some of these fi lms traveled outside of the country, won international

awards, and gained international fame for Iranian cinema. Two such

fi lms were Mehrjui’s “The Cow” and Shahid-Sales’ Tabi‘at-e bi-jân (“Still

Life”), made in 1974. Both won prestigious international prizes and became

the symbols of New Wave Iranian cinema.

Drama and Cinema 105

In general, the New Wave movies were regarded as elitist and some had

diffi culty attracting average Iranians as viewers. Some of these fi lms showed

only one or two nights in Tehran, never making it to provincial towns. They

attracted many intellectuals and provided fodder for critical commentaries

in newspapers but remained fi nancially unsustainable and too culturally

sophisticated for the general public. The disparity between the intellectual

and lower classes in Iran denied these young fi lmmakers commercial success

and pitted them against critics who viewed them as elitists. Yet, some of them

did receive considerable attention in foreign countries. Rahnemâ’s “Siâvosh

at Persepolis” was one such fi lm. The fi nancial failure of these fi lms discouraged

their producers, in turn putting pressure on fi lmmakers to make fi lms

which were more viable fi nancially. In fact, a number of fi lms made in this

period combined elements of both artistic and commercial considerations

such as Yârân (“Comrades”) in 1974 and Mâhi-hâ dar khâk mimirand (“Fish

Die on Ground” ) in 1976, both by Farzân Delju. By and large, these fi lms

were successful in shifting public interests from violence and sex to a more

refi ned and constructive taste. Starting in 1968, public interest in Film Fârsi

began to decline and some of the new intellectual fi lms began to attract public

attention. For instance, Mas‘ud Kimiâi’s Qeysar made a dynamic breakthrough

into the domestic fi lm industry by winning both critics’ and viewer’s

attention. Other fi lms which caught the interest of both critics and the public

were Âqâ-ye Hâlu (“Mr.Simpleton,” 1970) Dâsh Âkol (1971), and Gavazn-hâ

(“The Deer,” 1974).

The cultural policy adopted by the Pahlavi regime with the onset of the

White Revolution in 1963 assumed somewhat of a greater intensity in the late

sixties and early seventies. The policy attempted to enforce a homogenization

of diverse Iranian ethnic cultures, to depict the monarchy as the best form of

government, and to give a positive picture of modern Iran to the international

community. Aware of the widespread accessibility to and infl uence of the many

forms of Iranian media, the government encouraged the expansion of cultural

centers. By 1965, Tehran had 72 movie theaters, while other provinces had

192. The government also exerted more control over older establishments like

the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Culture and Arts. National

Iranian Television (NIT) was transformed to National Iranian Radio and

Television (NIRT), expanding its infl uence into other cultural domains. A

large budget was allocated to feature-fi lmmaking, predominantly in the public

sector, with full government control. The NIRT established the College

of Television along with a powerful production company named Telefi lm.

The latter was responsible for training young Iranians in the art of fi lmmaking

and fi nding common ground between the stage theater and fi lm. Tehran

University housed the Faculty of Dramatic Arts and the Faculty of Fine Arts.

106 Culture and Customs of Iran

Expansion of outlets for developing interest and professional expertise in the

cinematic arts continued with government initiatives like The Free Cinema

of Iran , various festivals featuring fi lms like the annual Shiraz Art Festival, the

Educational Festival (1967 onwards), the International Festival of Films for

Children and Young Adults (1967), the Free Cinema Film Festival (1970), the

National Film Festival (1970), the Tehran International Film Festival (1972)

and the Asian Young Film Festival (1974). In 1969, the Center for the Intellectual

Development of Children and Young Adults, along with UNESCO,

helped with making fi lms for children. A signifi cantly large number of young

fi lmmakers branched away from the established fi lm industry to form an

independent collective, called “the New Film Group,” while the government

actively censored and/or prohibited several Telefi lm-NFG productions.

These developments, along with increased activities of New Wave

fi lmmakers led to a historical revival of the country’s domestic fi lmmaking

industry—encouraging fi lm critics to speak variously of sinemâ-ye now (New

Cinema), sinemâ-ye javân (Young Cinema), mowj-e-now (New Wave), or even

sinemâ-ye demokrâtik (Democratic Cinema). The foundation of what would

emerge later in the postrevolutionary period was put down in this period.


On August 10, 1978, three men set fi re to the Rex Theater in the city of

Abâdân, killing 300 people who were trapped inside. At the time, this was

widely blamed on agents of the shah’s secret police (SAVAK). However, as

the country went through the revolutionary turmoil, theater-burning became

a common act by Islamic activists for protesting the shah’s regime. These

incidents set the mood for the national attitude toward cinema in the years

following the revolution. During the revolutionary period, close to 200

cinema houses were burned, demolished, or shut down by the revolutionaries

who viewed them as “centers of corruption.” Immediately after the

revolution, the entire fi lm industry virtually came to a complete halt and

cinematic development in the country was once again disturbed. The Islamic

Revolution aimed to change dramatically the direction of Iranian culture as

it had evolved during the Pahlavi period. The impact of a new theocratic

government was highly visible on the fi lm industry—an industry so closely

tied to Western and modern cultural products. This put the whole industry

in jeopardy.

From when the Islamic republic was fi rst established in 1979 until 1982,

funds were cut off to the fi lm industry and the government imposed a ban

on the screening of new or existing fi lms in the country. During 1980–1983,

Drama and Cinema 107

very few new fi lms were produced in the country because fi lmmakers were

unable to work in an environment of hostility, arbitrary rules, and no fi nancial

support. Filmmakers and entertainers were associated with the infl uences of

western culture and corruption of society marked by the shah’s government.

Many were threatened with legal charges, others were imprisoned, some even

executed. With almost no production of new fi lms in the country, the government

began to encourage the screening of older fi lms with more traditional values

and imported foreign fi lms with morally and politically acceptable themes,

namely the struggle of oppressed peoples against colonialism and imperialism.

Religious leaders’ initial reaction to cinema and theater was, and continues to

remain as of this date, ambiguous: some wished to forbid them entirely, some

to allow them with tight supervision, and some to use them to the advantage

of the new state. Apparently the government saw the potential usefulness of

cinema as a tool and, rather than banning the art form altogether, decided to

use it as a means of promoting good Islamic values and helping usher in an

Islamic culture. Thus, the Islamic Republic set about its mission of creating

a strictly ideological cinema. Films, as the new religious leaders viewed them,

were a good tool for educating people, especially about moral values. The government

encouraged local production by discouraging and reducing the number

of fi lms imported. The reduction of municipal taxes on local fi lms was also

accompanied by generous long-term bank loans to producers and availability

of foreign exchange funds for importing equipment and supplies.

In 1982, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was in charge of

supervising the fi lm industry. It issued a set of new regulations which would

dictate the distribution of exhibition permits needed by fi lms before they

could be screened legally. The review involved examination of script, issuance

of production and fi nal exhibition permits, and the fi nal assessment of the

completed production. New guidelines disallowed portrayal of women without

the hejâb (veil). They were to be portrayed as modest and chaste women,

good mothers, and God-fearing Muslims. Films were to be devoid of sexual

scenes, violence, any negative portrayal of Islam or the Islamic government,

and any dialogue or interaction deemed “immoral.” A fi lm could be refused a

permit if it contained any of the following violations: insult to Islam or other

recognized religions; insult to the Islamic Republic; encouragement of prostitution,

drug addiction or other bad behavior; negation of equality whether

based on color, language, or belief; and the depiction of violence or torture.

In the early 1980s, fi lms were made for propagandistic purposes, and nearly

no Iranian citizen was interested in seeing them. Yet, as time passed, new rules

took effect, and early purges of Iranian actors and actresses ended, the industry