How Bahram Beyzaie reformulated Iranian cinema and theatre

by Dr Saeed Talajooy

7 Nov 2018

To art-loving people in Iran, Bahram Beyzaie, born December 1938, is a renowned figure who has played a central role in reformulating Iranian performing traditions and researching Iranian myths in the last 60 years. He is ranked among the towering figures who managed through perseverance and dedication to translate some parts of the enormous cultural heritage of Iran into modern forms and, in turn, contribute to the century-long project that enabled Iranians to go through the process of modernisation with minimal signs of cultural alienation.

Beyzaie is a leading Iranian playwright, filmmaker, and scholar of global performance traditions, cinema and mythology. He grew up in a period of intense conflict, when the collapse of Reza Shah’s authoritarian rule and the domination of foreign powers over the country had enticed educated Iranians to attempt to implement a new sense of nationhood, acquiring meaning from its people rather than a king. He then faced a period of intense suppression and economic change which took Iran through an era of authoritative westernisation and delivered it to large-scale revolution and the establishment of an Islamic state. Beyzaie’s mind, therefore, is satiated with images of cultural transition and suppression. The impact of these encounters on his work has been enormous, particularly seen in his constant questioning of the diktats of official pedagogies of nationhood and development, in scholarly works that highlight marginalised accounts of history and myth, and in creative works that depict the hidden realities of people’s lives in the past and present. He also often goes back to Iran’s historical and mythical origins to use marginalised forms and produce alternative narratives that deconstruct grandiose political constructs.

Beyzaie’s approach to cultural criticism has been non-political, but subtle and thorough. Rather than limiting his creative works to contemporary situations, he extends his vision to history and myth to produce alternative narratives for Iran’s cultural identity and glorify real or fictional creative intellectuals as sacrificial heroes who face oppressive social, religious or political systems. Though very significant in its cultural impact, this sacrificial tragic paradigm has been only one of the templates that Beyzaie has created for the rejuvenation of Iranian forms. His approach to refashioning these forms has been very systematic; it began with naqqali (dramatic storytelling), kheimeh-shab-bazi (puppet theatre) and taqlid (improvisatory comic theatre) in his early plays and continued with ta’ziyeh and fertility rituals from 1966, when he began to combine these with eastern and western ritual and film forms to create the most expansive collections of experimental works in Iranian theatre and cinema.

To recognise the central position that Beyzaie has had in the reformulation of Iranian dramatic and narrative traditions, I organised a two-day workshop, supported by a research grant from the British Institute of Persian Studies. It coincided with the University of St Andrews’ awarding of an honorary doctorate to Bahram Beyzaie and was intended to celebrate his 60 years of creative and scholarly activity while giving an empowering momentum to those whose work reflects the values shared by human beings all over the world.

At the workshop, titled In Conversation with Bahram Beyzaie, the paper I presented focused on how, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he challenged the diktats of hegemonic masculinity in plays and films that offered alternative male and female protagonists. I focused on Uncle Moustache (1970) and Downpour (1971) to show how, through mise en scène and framing, he makes viewers conscious of the process of filmmaking. He reminds the audience that the figures celebrated on the mainstream screen are far from being heroic, while less celebrated figures may represent constructive approaches to life.

Scenes from Beyzaie

The transformation of the old man in Uncle Moustache, 1970.

 In Uncle Moustache, an old man, who carries all the major markers of patriarchy in its different Iranian forms – violent (moustache/knife), official (suit/tie) or religious (scalp cap/cloak) – tries to frighten the noisy children who are playing football outside his house by puncturing their balls and chasing them around. However, when one of the children is accidentally injured, he feels lonely, buys a ball, goes to the hospital to visit the injured and begins to befriend them. Thus, he learns to become a supporter rather than a controller and destroyer of the youth.

A good example of how Beyzaie establishes this dialogue with Iranian cinema and theatre can also be seen in the first scene of Downpour, in which the framing of the tough guy versus the intellectual teacher Mr Hekmati, who ends up becoming Beyzaie’s hero, suggests to Iranian filmmakers and cinema-goers the importance of putting away the clichés that have distorted cinema since its earliest days. Mr Hekmati is there to celebrate the contribution of modern teachers to the production of a democratic and constructive society, while criticising the machinations of socio-political forces that distort human potential for growth, creativity and happiness. In the opening scene, Beyzaie works with picture frames, mirrors and the frame of a broken mirror to introduce his new heroes, the creative, organic intellectual and hard-working women, while suggesting that it is only by breaking the old mirror of art that a new image, and in turn, a more inclusive society, can come into existence. By a symbolic arrangement of images, Beyzaie suggests that the magic mirror of cinema can only show a teacher as its hero if it is broken and transformed into a clean slate: an empty frame.

The protagonists in Beyzaie

The framing of Beyzaie’s protagonists in Downpour, 1971.

These forms of meta-theatrical and meta-cinematic referencing are effective as they break the fourth wall to suggest the artificiality of social constructs and reflect the possibility of change.

The workshop on Beyzaie was part of an ongoing research project on Iranian performing arts and literature. The project aims to mark the changing pattern of the modern modalities of Iranian identity and show how creative artists reformulate forms to expand the range of voices and images that can be displayed in the public space, leading in turn to a gradual emancipation of minds and promising a more democratic society in which more voices can be heard.

Dr Saeed Talajooy is a lecturer in Persian at the Department of Arabic and Persian at St Andrews University. He is currently working on a monograph on The Poetics and Politics of Modern Iranian Drama. Dr Talajooy received a £3,000 grant from the British Institute of Persian Studies to support his research. BIPS awards grants to post-doctoral researchers attached to UK Higher Educational Institutions twice a year, in April and October. Find out more on the BIPS website.

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