Short review of the Iranian television series Shahrzad (شهرزاد)

See also an extended version of this review on Counterpunch, here.

I have lately been watching the Iranian television series Shahrzad. Note the name of the title of the story here which is a direct reference to the chief female protagonist of the 1001 Arabian Nights which this series -- in veiled terms and openly -- often refers to. Our own chief protagonist here (played by Taraneh Alidousti) is also named Shahrzad through whose eyes and experience an entire tumultuous narrative of love and betrayal, marriage and divorce, birth and death, crime and punishment, justice and injustice unfolds. The setting is 1950s Iran during the immediate period of the consolidation of the Pahlavi dictatorship following the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh and his nationalist government. The series is directed by Hasan Fathi with its screenplay written by both Hasan Fathi and Naghmeh Samini. Other stars include Shahab Hosseini (playing "Qobad"), Ali Nassirian ("Bozorg Agha") and Mostafa Zamani ("Farhad"). Twenty-six episodes have aired as of the week ending on 22 April 2016.

The plot follows the storyline of Shahrzad who is a medical student at the University of Tehran. Her fiance is Farhad who is a literature student as well as being a journalist-activist who works for a newspaper with openly pro-Mossadegh sympathies. Together they frequent Tehran's famous Cafe Naderi, which in the 1950s served as a meeting hub for nationalist and leftwing intellectuals and university students opposed to the Pahlavi regime. The families of Shahrzad and Farhad are close, with the fathers of the two being best friends. Both fathers of Shahrzad and Farhad are also intimate cronies to a leading Tehran mafia figure known as Bozorg Agha (the Big Man), the chief patriarchal figure of the Divan-Salar (crime) family, to whom they owe their livelihoods and security.  On the day of the August 1953 coup d'etat (28 Mordad 1332) Farhad is arrested by military authorities following the storming of the offices of the newspaper he works for when one of the hired thugs associated with the pro-royalist coup plotters (of the CIA connected Rashidian brothers) accidentally falls off the office balcony and is killed as he is about to attack Farhad.  The post-coup military court then sentences Farhad to death by firing-squad but at the last minute he is saved through the intervention of Bozorg Agha and is released. However, Farhad's release and rescue from execution comes with a heavy price for his family and his fiance Shahrzad, as one of the conditions set by Bozorg Agha for intervening to save Farhad's life is that Shahrzad relinquish her engagement to Farhad and instead become a second wife to his nephew and son-in-law Qobad whose own wife, daughter and only child to Bozorg Agha (i.e. Shirin) is barren and incapable of producing a heir for the Divan-Salar (crime) family dynasty. Shahrzad's father, Jamshid, although compelled by Bozorg Agha, gratuitously agrees to the marriage to shore up his own social position and financial security, but Farhad and Shahrzad attempt to elope, only to be caught and separated by Bozorg Agha's men half way to Shiraz with Shahrzad brought back to Tehran by force with Farhad beaten half to death by Bozorg Agha's men. Meanwhile authorities of the military government of Fazlullah Zahedi have ordered the shut down of the pro-Mossadegh newspaper that Farhad works for.

Without a doubt, Shahrzad is by far one of the best Iranian television (drama) series ever made. It is a veritable Iranian Godfather plus love story plus historical docu-drama plus serious social commentary plus constant reflection on what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo called The Tragic Sense of Life -- but contextualized in a consummately traditional Iranian sort of way -- all rolled into one. Replete are theological and metaphysical speculations on God and the devil, free will and fate, the nature of good and evil, and the capacity as well as limitations of the human heart for suffering. Iranian style melodrama abounds, but (just like Da'i Jan Napelon) even the melodrama offers poignant commentary on important aspects of the social psychology of Iranian society. The nature of family and the individual; friendship and enmity; loyalty, betrayal and sacrifice; love, jealousy and its vicissitudes; guilt and innocence; tradition versus modernity; war and peace; anger and equanimity; crime and punishment; independence versus duty; are beautifully explored here. Episode 11 even deals with the occult whose theme then symbolically looms around one specific character in subsequent episodes (i.e. Shirin) and her issues of jealousy, hatred and insanity with its linkage to somnambulism (i.e. "sleep walking") -- and in one scene, even murder! Great lines of poetry from the Persian literary classics abound, as do some of the classics of modern Iranian poetry (i.e. Nima Yushij, Parvin Etesami, etc), wherein tradition and modernity and their tensions are juxtaposed within the greater constellation of the story’s depiction of the times. Moreover, the shadow of Shakespeare's Othello especially hangs large here.

The series throws a massive limelight on the corruptions of the secular Iranian upper classes during the 1950s of the Pahlavi era in the immediate post-Mossadegh period. As mentioned, the series itself begins in episode 1 with the August 1953 coup d'etat against Mossadegh. It especially underscores the abuses, the toxicity, twistedness, callousness, cruelties and, above all, the absurdities of patriarchy under this specific parasitic Iranian social class of the time (neither aristocrat nor bourgeois; neither traditional or modern; but something in between, wherein this class' pretensions to Europeanness instead betrays it according to the worst, most tragic caricatures of oriental despotism): a topic which is quite risqué and avant garde for Iranian film and television to be broaching in the probing manner it is being dealt with here. Class conflict and the ‘disposability’ of the lower classes in the view of the upper classes of the era is graphically depicted, not to mention how such warped power relationships and dynamics in the wider Iranian society project and play themselves out inside family and social networks, especially in courting and marriage.  Poignant contrasts between this so-called modernized and Europeanized "elite" and the lower classes they mercilessly exploit and prey upon is highlighted in the choice of attire, artwork and architecture associated with this elite with its nearly complete absence of anything authentically traditional or Iranian. The Divan-Salar family completely surrounds itself with European Baroque style architecture and artwork  and dresses like any number of the European upper classes of the era. Only the big black onyx ring on Bozorg Agha's right-hand ring finger shows a vague semblance of the Shi'i culture of Iran within him, and this is quite an important facet in the cultural make-up of this predatorial class during the era which the series has sharply put its focus on. Simultaneously, the totally self-serving and unchecked power of the military officer class –- with their nouveau riche business partners and patrons -- who made it rich as a result of the 1953 anti-Mossadegh coup d’etat is well portrayed here. That said, this is a story about the Iranian cosa nostra of the 1950s with their assorted dependencies and social beneficiaries, all being a reflection of the inherently venal and corrupt nature of the Pahlavi regime itself who literally behaved like a mafia.

The acting and character development of Shahrzad is superb; the direction and screenplay, among the best Iran has produced; and all within the parameters of what is deemed acceptable in a conservative religious society like Iran's. The music is also among the most moving Iranian television has scored. All in all, Shahrzad is a tour de force masterpiece that shows Iranian storytelling at its best: Iranian storytelling which has seriously come into its own with Shahrzad, intelligently and with great sensitivity covering a lot of ground in the process.


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