Genre in the Iranian Cinema
by Massoud Mehrabi
There was no need to classify films up to two decades after the beginning of cinema and films were usually identified according to their duration, subject and storyline. As themes and styles diversified, especially after various studios started making films in the United States, the need for classification of films was felt more than before by companies distributing and screening movies in order to provide better information to their audience. At first, such categories as “slapstick” or “western” were used. Gradually, however, the common classification for works of literature, which divided them into epic, dramatic, love, comedy, tragic, historical and other genres, inspired filmmakers to find new words to describe film categories. New genres became more specialized after film production became more regular during the World War I. Filmmakers were not the only people who named genres. While some genres were taken from literature and even stage plays, there were others whose names have been designated by moviegoers or critics. For example, “film noir” was first introduced by French critics while such films were already described by Hollywood as “detective-mystery” or “criminals.”
The first Iranian features were produced when comedy and melodrama were in high demand both in the world and among Iranian moviegoers. Abi and Rabi (1931) and Hadji Agha, the Cinema actor (1934), both made by Avanes Oganiance, were comedies which failed upon public screening as they were not accompanied with sound track. Lor Girl (a melodrama made by Abdolhossein Sepanta in 1933) was the first Iranian sound movie which was also a great hit. That success encouraged Sepanta to make two more love melodramas based on two collections of Persian poems written by Nezami Ganjavi: Shirin and Farhad (1935) and Leili and Majnoun (1937). They became a role model for other Iranian films whose production started after a ten-year interregnum in 1947. Thus, melodrama became the dominant genre of the Iranian cinema. This proved to be a useful genre which managed to attract all kinds of viewers regardless of such conditions as time and place as well as ethnic and cultural background. Melodramas allowing for daydreaming and family dramas usually catered to lower-class people who were more than willing to imagine pleasure of an affluent life under a capitalist system. Melodrama provided them with a short-cut to give vent to suppressed and deep-rooted emotional, social, and political aspirations of a society which was in transition from rural to urban life.
Another melodrama, The Storm of Life (Ali Daryabeigi, 1947), which marked the beginning of a new era of filmmaking in Iran, lambasted urban relations as well as money and wealth. Here, the city was depicted as a monster which gobbles up simple people. The Enchantress (Esmaeil Koushan, 1952) was another melodrama highlighting the contrast between the evil city and heavenly village in a different way. The leading actress was Delkash, one of the most popular divas of those years, and the film turned out to be a blockbuster. Before the revolution in 1979, famous singers were regular presences in most melodramas and almost all genres. Extended Night was a good example which was screened in 1977 featuring one of the most favorite Iranian pop stars, Googoosh. Like The Enchantress, Extended Night was the bestselling movie of that year and among top ten bestsellers of the Iranian cinema. The contrast between a simple, good-hearted villagers and mean, profiteer urban characters was a golden motif of comedy genre in Iran. As a result, Samad Aqa, produced by and casting Parviz Sayyad, was soon produced in series, including Samad Goes to the School (1973) and Samad Enters the Dragon (1978) all of which were among top ten bestsellers of their time. At the same time, most real villagers lived below the poverty line.
During the same period (1947-79) when melodrama and comedy were pioneer genres of the Iranian cinema, few films were also made in other genres which included box office hits like crime movies made by Samuel Khachikian (known as Iran’s Hitchcock): Midnight Scream (1961) or Horror (1962). On the whole, not all those films can be put in a single category of genre because most of those films, even melodramas and comedies, included elements of other genres. Crime, adventure, action, epic, music and dance were common elements of almost all Iranian films. Even intellectual filmmakers who directed films to protest to social conditions had to follow suit with that common formula in order to prevent commercial failure of their works. A few scenes of dancing and singing were indispensable. It is common in Iran to add the suffix “-iran” to proprietary names to make them look more Iranian. There are such common designations as “Meubliran (name of a furniture company),” “Cabliran (manufacturer of electrical appliances),” “Takiran (producer of doors and window frames),” and “Pushiran (producer of garments).” So, one may as well call the dominant genre of most Iranian films “Genriran!”
That genre, however, underwent basic changes following the revolution in 1979 and lost most of its ingredients, especially dancing, singing, love scenes, contacts between men and women, heavy makeup, as well as showoff of wealth and extravagance. What remained were tears, crying and action: elementary action including childish pursuits. As the war with Iraq started, a new genre was born in the Iranian cinema: war films. Iranian filmmakers had no prior experience with this genre and their films were copycats of western war movies. As the war drew out (from September 1980 to August 1988) and filmmakers gained more experience through direct presence at warfronts, the genre evolved and the Iranian cinema developed its own indigenized war genre. Journey to Chazzabeh (Rasoul Molla-Qolipour, 1995), Minoo Watchtower (Ebrahim Hatami-Kia, 1995), and Duel (Ahmad Reza Darvish, 2003) were prominent examples which conformed to correct norms of war genre. Some war films even introduced anti-war and comedy elements into this genre.
The relative social and political openness following the war provided a new window of opportunity for resurgence of comedies and melodramas, which had been largely marginalized during war years. In The Daisies (Rasoul Sadr Ameli, 1984), which was warmly welcomed by the Iranian moviegoers, for the first time after the revolution a blind young man and a young girl fell in love without even holding each other’s hands! Those limitations made viewers and filmmakers more avid. After reformist politicians gained power (1997), Iranian movie theaters were awash with films depicting young girls and boys, which rightfully belong to romantic genres. Action was another popular genre, though Iranian filmmakers have not been able to make an action film matching up to international standards.
Although the Iranian cinema has won a lot of creditable prizes, “genriran” has still the main say in domestic productions: films that cater to comfort-seeking viewers and tell them: “Just sit down and forget about everything.”
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2011, Film International
Quarterly Magazine (ISSN 1021-6510)
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Publishing Date Summer 2011
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