By Tariq Ali
It is as difficult to define or classify Islamic cinema as it
would be a Christian, Jewish or Buddhist one. The language of
cinema has always been universal. Interpretations vary. Censors
had different priorities: in 1950s Hollywood a married couple
could not share a double bed and had to be clothed. In South Asia,
the censor's scissors clipped out kisses from western films. The
birth of commercial and art movies did not remain confined in
the west for too long.
The Lumière brothers first exhibited moving pictures in
Paris in 1896. A year later there was a private showing at the
Yildiz palace in Istanbul. The viewers consisted of the Ottoman
Sultan/Caliph - the temporal and spiritual leader of Sunni Islam
- and a few selected courtiers. In 1898 the Ottoman public was
let in on the secret and there was a screening in the beer hall
in Galatasaray Square. During the next decade cinema halls sprouted
like wild mushrooms, and audiences in Istanbul and Smyrna flocked
to see everything. Cultural repression began soon after the first
world war in 1919: Ahmet Fehim's films were considered politically
provocative and censored by the British occupying authorities.
With the birth of post-Ottoman Turkey, the new industry found
a staunch supporter in Latifa Usakligil, the feminist wife of
Kemal Ataturk (the marriage lasted two years, from 1923-25). Where
Istanbul led, Cairo followed. And Bombay was not far behind. Muslim
stars dominated the formative years of Bollywood even though,
like Jews in Hollywood, many changed their names to appease the
dominant Hindu population. Yusuf Khan became Dilip Kumar, Meena
Kumari was once Mahajabeen and it was an Afghan woman, Mumtaz
Begum, who entranced audiences as Madhubala. Alone among his colleagues
in defying convention, the popular comic actor, Badrudin Kazi,
mocked the studio bosses by adopting the Christian name of a much-favoured
imperial tipple: Johnny Walker.
When Pakistan was carved out of India's rib in 1947 it was assumed
by some that Bollywood's Muslim stars would defect to the new
state and thus boost the Lahore film industry. But Lollywood did
not happen. The Pakistan government decided to help its cinema
by banning film imports from India. The result was a disaster.
Commercialism stifled creativity. Since nobody could see Indian
movies, Pakistani producers shamelessly plagiarised the Bombay
original. Nor could Pakistan produce anything that even remotely
resembled the work of Satyajit Ray or Mrinal Sen. Then in the
late 1950s and 60s, the military rulers sealed off the country
from "subversive" influences. Hollywood reigned supreme.
A decade later, when Pakistan had its first secular, elected,
civilian government, women were encouraged to study and seek employment,
but the cinema remained heavily veiled. It had little to do with
Islam as such, since the same postcolonial rules were in operation
in neighbouring India. On-screen kisses were forbidden. Bosoms
could heave but had to be carefully covered and, even at the beach,
actresses had to swim fully clothed. Cinema proprietors in Pakistan
decided to spice their shows with a "tota" (strip).
In Lahore, touts would parade outside some movie theatres and
whisper to bystanders that a "one-minute strip" was
being shown at the late-night performance. The prowling males
would pack the show and halfway through some boring movie, a minute
or two of porno-flicks would appear on the screen. After this
the cinema emptied.
That was a long time ago. Pakistani movies are still awful. A
new low point was reached in 1990 with International Guerrillas
, which glorified jihadi militarism and vilified Salman Rushdie
- the equivalent of Hollywood trash depicting Muslims as terrorists.
The "plot" centered on a gang of Islamist Pakistanis
who raid the secure facility where Rushdie is being kept safe.
Much violence follows, but the evil Rushdie is killed through
divine intervention. The film was a box-office flop. More popular
were the porn DVDs that are easily available. Their procurers
do a roaring under-the-counter trade, particularly in Islamist
strongholds like Peshawar and Quetta. Unsurprisingly, a fair proportion
of the bearded militants who spend the day painting veils on billboard
actresses, settle down that same evening to watch some comforting
It's different in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim
nation, where only last year the censors passed Arisan . The film's
plot revolves around an architect's eventual coming out as a gay
man. The censors passed a movie depicting male homosexuality and
featuring a gay kiss, without exciting a backlash from local clerics.
Likewise in Tajikistan, where Djamshed Usmonov's latest film,
Angel on the Right , depicts sexual, social and political frustrations
(affairs, drunkenness, corruption) without any problems. The style
of his films, strongly influenced by Soviet film schools, reflects
the strengths of that tradition.
It is clerical Iran that has produced the most vibrant and remarkable
cinema of today. Not since the French New Wave have auteurs from
a single country dominated the art-cinema market. Compelled by
circumstances (like their Communist bloc counterparts of the 1960s)
to rely on symbolism and allegory, Iran's film-makers have produced
a varied range of high-quality cinema. One reason for this is
the rich intellectual tradition in the country that transcended
the kitsch world of the Shah as well as bearded puritanism. The
novels of Sedagh Hedayet - especially his masterwork The Blind
Owl - had a Kafkaesque quality: his heroes are intense loners,
floundering in a sea of anguish, remote from those who rule the
country. Ahmed Shamlu's poetry was more optimistic in tone, but
staunchly oppositional. These writers influenced many of Iran's
film-makers - before and after Khomeini's triumph.
Abbas Kiarostami, the father of the Iranian New Wave, is a graduate
of the Teheran University's faculty of fine arts and sees cinema
as an art form no different from a painting or a sculpture. Landscape
and architecture are as important as the actors. Each viewing
uncovers something new. The end is usually enigmatic. Different
interpretations are always possible. In Taste of Cherry (1997)
a man is trying to commit suicide, but in a calm and dispassionate
fashion. When the censors objected, Kiarostami explained that
the movie was really about the different choices involved in living
out each day. The suicide was incidental. Not exactly my reading
of the movie.
The cinematic language and interior destiny of each Iranian film-maker
is different, the international influences on them vary from Rossellini
to Fellini, Akira Kurosawa to Hou Hsiao-hsien, but there is a
strong sense of solidarity. Even the self-contained Makhmalbaf
family sees itself as part of a larger community. They view and
comment on each other's work, they help each other artistically
Jafar Panahi latest film, Crimson Gold , illustrates the process.
Panahi was on his way to Kiarostami's exhibition of photographs
when he heard of a double killing that had taken place that day
in an upmarket jewellery store in Teheran. He was so upset that
he left the exhibition. Later he and Kiarostami excavated the
story behind the incident. Why had a poor, demobilised veteran
from the Iran-Iraq war, now turned pizza delivery man, shot a
jeweller and then taken his own life? Kiarostami agreed to write
the script for Panahi. The result is a neo-realist masterpiece,
where fragments taken from a raw reality are seen in relation
to the overall class structure of contemporary Iran.
Jafar Panahi is, in some ways, Iran's most fearless film-maker.
In The Circle he depicted the oppression of women with a rare
sensitivity. The religious police are back in action in Crimson
Gold , waiting to pounce on unmarried young women on their way
out of a mixed party where we can see them, silhouetted against
the window, dancing and enjoying themselves. It is this daily
interference in social relations between the sexes that has completely
alienated young people from the clerics. Although, as Crimson
Gold reveals, underlying all this is a society where the divide
between rich and poor increases every month.
Kamal Tabrizi's Marmoulak (The Lizard), released in the UK this
week, satirises the mullahs. A convict (known as "the Lizard")
escapes from a prison hospital disguised as a mullah. He takes
the train to a border town where they are expecting a new mullah.
The Lizard has watched enough Iranian television to pick up the
clerical style, but he becomes an ultra-humanist cleric, encouraging
doubt, analysing Tarantino movies, both surprising and delighting
his audience. This film slipped through the censors and played
to packed cinemas throughout the country. When mullahs began to
be addressed publicly as lizards a panic gripped the cultural
establishment and the film was rapidly withdrawn.
This independent, critical school of non-conformist Iranian film
directors has risen up against falsehood and irrationality, producing
a cinema that has no rivals in the west today. And religion? It
is visible in many guises in some of these films, but never centre
stage and never official
This article was published in The Guardian