This piece first appeared on DNA Online on 4 December 2015.
The traffic signal is red. We see an intersection through the windshield of a car. As the green light blinks, the camera moves forward. A passerby asks for a lift, the car stops and the camera flips around. It is a taxi. Two passengers argue about capital punishment, one of them endorsing the hanging of petty thieves. He also chastises the taxi driver for not driving like a pro. The two shortly get off and the wobbly camera zooms out. The driver is Jafar Panahi.
Panahi, an internationally celebrated film director from Iran, has come up with this latest masterpiece, Taxi, in which he negotiates through the streets of Teheran disguised as a cabbie, encounters varied passengers and makes a powerful statement on the state of Iran. The film took the recently concluded International Film Festival in Goa by storm. So much so, that the organisers scheduled a repeat show of Taxi on public demand.
The Iranian government imposed a 20-year ban on Panahi in 2010, disallowing him from making films. Being a socially committed filmmaker has cost him dearly as the government, along with banning him from filmmaking until 2030, released him into house arrest in 2011 (though he is now allowed some movement) and barred him from travelling abroad or giving interviews for “making propaganda against the system”. Panahi irked Iran’s Islamic Republic, first in 2000, when he made a film called The Circle, which depicted the treatment of women in Iran. The iconic director was at it again in 2003 with Crimson Gold where he highlighted the crisis of masculinity in Iran’s underclass. Offside in 2006 was inspired by a real life incidence of Panahi’s daughter, who was refused entry into a football stadium because of her gender. Each of these films was banned in Iran.
Panahi’s popularity at the international film festivals and the accolades that poured in from all corners of the globe were enough for the Iranian government to convict him for defaming the country internationally.
The clandestinely produced Taxi exemplifies the fact that no censorship can silence a genius like Panahi. This is his third film during the five years of being under surveillance. This Is Not a Film in 2012 and Closed Curtains in 2014 were the other two. This Is Not a Film was famously smuggled out of Iran through a USB stick concealed in a birthday cake. Closed Curtains was shot at his beach house.
Taxi opens with a discussion on capital punishment between a liberal female teacher and a man with condescending macho swagger and goes on to speak about superstition, patriarchy and, most importantly, censorship. A camera mounted on the dashboard of the taxi passed off as a security device shoots the range of characters and a roadshow of Iranian society unfolds.
As Panahi, wearing a hat and a gentle smile drives on, Omid, a round-headed big-eyed man, boards his taxi and promptly recognises the director because he is in the business of distributing pirated DVDs of banned films and western TV serials in Iran. “Mr. Panahi, I recognise you,” he says with excitement. When Panahi questions him about his illicit business, Omid responds, “I am doing a cultural activity, sir, just like you. Without me, no Woody Allen in Iran.” After arriving at his destination, Omid asks how much fare he owes him, to which Panahi says, “It is all right. Keep it for your cultural activity.”
In the 82-minute long sarcastic portrayal of Iranian society, there are many references to Panahi’s own work from his glittering past. Two superstitious old women barge into the taxi with a bowl of goldfish, anxious about reaching their destination in time is a reference to Panahi’s first film, The White Balloon. A female human rights lawyer, barred from practicing law, speaks about visiting a girl jailed for sneaking into a stadium, echoing Offside. Passengers who know Panahi also invoke the circumstances under which he has been prohibited from making films.
But the most compelling narrative comes from Panahi’s nine-year-old niece, Hana. This year, she tearfully received the prestigious Golden Bear Award in Berlin on Panahi’s behalf, as he was not allowed to travel. In Taxi, she is a budding filmmaker who wants to make a “distributable” film. Panahi picks her up from school and asks her innocently about the criteria for the film to qualify as distributable. She precisely lists the government diktats that landed Panahi in trouble— no sordid realism, no statement on politics or economy. Moreover, men must not wear ties unless they are villains and the characters ought to be named after sacred Islamic saints.
It seems many of the passengers play themselves in the film though Panahi omits end credits, mentioning the information could fall to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The whole film is shot in a car, leaving no scope to show off cinematographic skills or augmenting the experience with visually compelling spectacles. The film is verbose but intriguing and reflective of the mindset prevailing in many parts of the world. Panahi encapsulates his own anguish of the “Big Brother is Watching You” treatment with his artistic brilliance. The message of the film is truer than it has ever been and relevant not just in Iran.
In India, the reason behind banning the documentary India’ Daughter was precisely the reason for which Panahi is forbidden from making films in Iran— it defames the country globally. After Dadri, many politicians said the instance maligned India’s image internationally. The writers returning their awards were pilloried because their move supposedly damaged India’s image abroad. In Taxi, a bewildered Hana asks Panahi why the things transpiring in Iran are okay but their portrayal is objected to.
Post World War II, Germany initiated a probe against their own prominent members of the political, military and economic leadership of Nazi Germany for some of the despicable war crimes at various concentration camps. Whether it defamed Germany for unearthing their own bloody history or it raised the country’s stature for confronting their past instead of being in denial is for everyone to judge. (At this year’s International Film Festival in Goa, a film called Labyrinth of Lies depicted the investigations that led to the trials of their own by their own.)
We Indians must thank our stars for not being in Iran, for the censorship that we express our angst about is piddling when juxtaposed with what Panahi and his ilk have had to face. Other iconic directors like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Asghar Farhadi fled Iran, moved to Paris and have no plans to return anytime soon. However, as we celebrate the freedom of dissent we still have at our disposal, it might be prudent to reflect a bit on the current narrative of nationalism being promulgated. The censorship in Iran also began with a similar premise.