If there was a Satyajit Ray in Iran then that could be Abbas Kiarostami. Considered one of the best not only in Iran but world over, Kiarostami breathed his last on 4th of July in Paris. With his passing away this could be the end of an era of terrific film makers from world cinema which carried the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Satyajit Ray.

Like any other acclaimed film makers Kiarostami wasn’t devoid of accolades in his career. The prestigious Palm de’Or for the film ‘Taste of Cherry’ (1997) and the FIPRESCI prize for the movie ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ (1999) at the Venice film festival are among myriads of honours received by the director from across the world. Also, in his last few films Kiarostami wandered in the territories outside his country making films in French, Italian and even in Japanese roping in some of the mainstream actors of those countries like the French heartthrob Juliet Binoche.

Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016)
Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016)

Abbas Kiarostami is one among the earliest directors who felt the ire of the Iranian Government of post Islamic revolution. All hell broke loose in Iran when Kiarostami received a hug and kiss from the presenter while he was awarded for a prize at the Cannes film festival.  Kiarostami had to stay away from his home country for a week till the troubled waters in Iran was settled. Apparently, any physical contact with an unrelated person of opposite sex in public was banned in Iran.

Kiarostami’s movies lingered around the concepts of spiritual beliefs like life, death and after-life and imparted them with a mystical angle subtly, leaving the audience to ponder over what he is trying to convey. His way of storytelling sometimes didn’t go well with a minority of western critics and often accused him of not revealing any dialogues at important junctures of his movies. However, in terms of harsh criticism Kiarostami has attracted only little away from Iran. In Iran he only faced ban.

All of his movies are still not allowed to be screened Iran, where the leaders believed that there were refined references in his movies that acted as propaganda against the government. A perplexed Kiarostami had this to say about his movies being banned:

“The government has decided not to show any of my films for the past 10 years… I think they don’t understand my films and so prevent them being shown just in case there is a message they don’t want to get out”.

Another insult this genius film maker faced later came from the far west in United States when he was denied a visa to attend the New York film festival that came right after the 9/11 terrorist attack. This made some of the American directors in an embarrassing position and few of them even boycotted attending the festival in protest.

Screengrab from the film ‘Taste of Cherry’ which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes
Screengrab from the film ‘Taste of Cherry’ which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes

Jafar Panahi, another popular name from Iran among the world cinema stage is a protégé of Kiarostami and followed his school of film making isn’t bereft of the fury of Iranian Government. Panahi is banned from making any films for whopping 20 years, a fact that is condemned by the film maker’s world over. Panahi’s crime includes making a movie which revolved around few girls who masquerade as boys to watch a football match between Iran and Bahrain live at a stadium in Tehran. This gem of a movie is aptly titled ‘Offside’ (2006) and was banned as it shows, well, yes girls at a stadium which is a no as per the law. Panahi was even arrested and sentenced to 6 years in prison citing various other reasons which later was reduced to house arrest and a ban on making any movies further or going outside Iran.

The much debated freedom of expression which the Indian filmmakers enjoy to a great extend comes with a hefty price for the Iranian film makers. They are to work within the ambit set by the Government. India indeed had films that were banned mostly because of the ‘sanskari’ or ‘sentiments hurt’ reasons but never had it banned a film maker itself from making a movie. In fact some of the films that didn’t show the government or the state in a good light like Haider (2014) or a rebellious Rang de Basanti (2006) were highly acclaimed and had even won national awards.

It’s not that India has achieved all the freedom it needs to make the movies a filmmaker wished for; which the country still needs to work on preventing a movie made by Anurag Kashyap or Deepa Mehta getting banned but at the same time should also remember that with all the problems faced by the Iranian filmmakers, they are still producing gems. This is something not just a filmmaker but people from all walk of lives needs to learn from the life of Abbas Kiarostami.

When Kiarostami was asked on why he didn’t flee the country like some of his peers, he had the following to say:

“When you take a tree that is rooted in the ground, and transfer it from one place to another, the tree will no longer bear fruit. And if it does, the fruit will not be as good as it was in its original place. This is a rule of nature. I think if I had left my country, I would be the same as the tree.”

The spirit of this extraordinary filmmaker and his musings lives on.




Aswin Ram