Thursday, December 09, 2010
108. Iranian screenplay-writer and director Majid Majidi’s film “Baran” (Rain) (2001): A Sufi take on the mosaic of Iran
Many would assess and dismiss this delicate Iranian feature film as an interestingly made love story between a young Iranian man and an Afghan woman refugee in Iran,or even as interesting cinematic tale where the woman lead actor does not speak a word. However, the film communicates much more than a regular love saga. Baran won the the Grand Prix of the Americas at the 2001 Montreal Film Festival and the Freedom of Expression Award of the US National Board of Review.
The story of Baran, the film, is a based on a delectable screenplay conceived by the director himself. First, the name Baran is the name of the young Afghan lady in the film and Baran also means “rain.” So big deal, one would say. But rain is the ultimate scenario for the final sequence of this Majidi movie. Again rain might not mean much to a casual viewer of this film. Majidi, the screenplay writer, has deliberately chosen the word Baran to link the two elements of the movie, the human and the natural.
Many would assume the principal subject of the film to be the female protagonist Baran. Yet Majidi surprises the viewer by a clever inversion of the subject—the film turns out to be a tale about the man who falls in love with Baran rather than Baran herself. The film traces the gradual change in the male character before and after falling in love with the girl. Once in love, Lateef the young Azeri Iranian evolves from the cheeky young fighter-cock constantly conscious of the importance of accumulating savings at each opportunity, to an individual who slowly transforms into an ascetic giving up all his wealth and the costly identity papers for his love’s family who needs those items of “pelf” more than him. Lateef in love is a transformed individual, he doesn’t chase away birds but feeds them. This is close to the Sufi ideals that one needs to adopt in life to be “united/aligned with the Beloved/Divine forces.” Somewhere near the middle of the film a troubled Lateef encounters an Afghan shoemaker with a "Rumi-like" visage who says the enigmatic words “From the hot fire of being apart, Comes the flame that burns the heart.” Probably these lines are from the Sufi poet Rumi, I do not know for sure. It is important for the viewer to note that that the shoemaker is never seen again by Lateef, and that the end of the film is also about a shoe that is returned to the owner and footprint of the shoe is shown being erased by rain.
In Iranian cinema, one hardly encounters physical touch by the opposite sexes, and true to this spirit the only acknowledgement of love is a smile or a furtive glance acknowledging the lover. With such constraints, memories become valuable than touch and more so in a movie like Baran, which transcends a love tale to enter a higher level of philosophy knocking at the doors of Sufism (and perhaps Tabula Rasa?).
The movie Baran is replete with minor details that indicate ethnic differences within the Iranian population that becomes apparent in the film but not to a casual visitor to Iran (I have visited Iran more than once on official work but never noticed the mosaic of ethnicity beyond the sprinkling of Armenians in Teheran and the bulk of the Persian Iranian population). Baran could be essentially classified as a tale of the Afghan refugee and the Afghan's eventual desire to return to his homeland, but Majidi’s Baran introduces colourful vignettes of Azeri Iranian (as associated with Azerbaijan), the Turkmen Iranian (as associated Turkmenistan), the Kurds and the Lurs. The official website of Baran explains the details. The construction site brings the different ethnicities together. Majidi’s screenplay knits the logical interplay between the communities: the Persian Iranians play the Inspectors, the Azeris bond together and take care of each other, the Kurds and the Lurs are easily provoked to fight the Azeris, while the poor Afghans, without identity papers, toil away for a fraction of what the others earn always fearing deportation if spotted by the Persian Iranian inspectors. And in Majidi's script and film, each ethnic group lives in separate rooms while they work together at the same construction site. Forget the love story, because these details, lovingly crafted, tell another realistic story that is perhaps more interesting than the obvious love tale.
There is a strange similarity that I note between Majidi’s Baran and Aki Kaurismaki’s Man Without a Past. In both movies, the past of the main persona is forgotten and a new person emerges harking back to Tabula Rasa--to start life anew. In both films “rain” is a mystical symbol—in Baran, you see the footprint of the beloved (or philosophically the one you seek) in the rain towards end of the film; in Man Without a Past there is rain on a clear day to grow potatoes, rain that grows six or seven potatoes on a small patch of land, and the last half-potato is given away to a stranger who wants to eat it to avoid scurvy! Futrther, in Baran there is a departure by a hired vehicle for Afghanistan, in Kaurismaki’s film there is a train that is moving forward, a visual metaphor used to punctuate past and future. Both Majidi and Kaurismaki seem to have similar minds and affinity in their personal philosophies.
A closing thought. Did Majidi, when he wrote the script, intend to make a love story relating to one dazzling individual that struck a chord in a boy’s heart and mind or did Majidi want to make a philosophical film on the life of a young man maturing into one that cares for others less fortunate than himself? I feel both stories co-exist in this film and it is the viewer who has to choose which tale is the more powerful strand of the two.
P.S. Aki Kaurismaki's film Man Without a Past has been reviewed earlier on this blog