Super Deluxe opens this Friday, and in a long-ago interview, the director Thiagarajan Kumararaja told me about watching The Circle, the 2000 Iranian film by Jafar Panahi, where the narrative is handed over from one character to the next – a number of independent-yet-interconnected stories adding up to a powerful whole. He said he was astonished, and it helped him get over the big “what should I make next?” question (It had been a while since his first film, Aaranya Kaandam). Anthology-type films aren’t new, but what’s striking about Panahi’s work is the minimalism we’ve come to associate with Iranian cinema. Interlocking stories usually make for thrilling, flashy films, but The Circle opens on a black screen, which stays as the titles play out.
The sounds tell us that we are inside a room where a woman is giving birth. We hear her cries. She’s pushing. Then, there’s calm, and a few seconds later, as the credit “Produced, Directed and Edited by Jafar Panahi” comes up, we hear an infant’s wails. The credit disappears. The screen turns black again. And we hear a nurse say, “It’s a girl.” The film is an indictment of the treatment of women in Iran, and the blackness appears like a shroud of gloom, as though the screen had been cloaked with the floor-length chador the women are seen wearing in the movie. In 1983, the Iranian government published official regulations for filmmakers, and one of the rules went: “Islamic hejab must be obeyed at all times for women. This means: wearing loose long clothes and trousers in dark colours. Even scarves and chadors (a one-piece cloth covering head-to-toe) must be of dark colour…”
Hence, the blackness of the screen. It makes sense. Panahi is obeying rules, but it appears he is also commenting on them. Another rule goes: “It is prohibited to show the made up face of a woman.” How, then, do we reconcile with the image of the woman, near the end, who is wearing lipstick? And chews gum? And smokes? And is not wearing a head-to-toe garment? She’s a sex worker, of course. Note the rule that goes: “The use of the chador for negative characters and persons must have a logical excuse.” With all this, it’s a miracle that cinema is even made in Iran, let alone great cinema. One can only imagine how much trouble Majid Majidi went through while casting the little girl in Children of Heaven (1997). After all: “To use young girls is not allowed without permission of the Office of Supervision and Evaluation.” Though maybe the rules had relaxed by then.
The Circle is a passing-the-baton kind of movie. One character runs into or passes by another character, and we begin to follow the second character’s story. (The first one disappears.) And from the second character to the third, from the third to the fourth, and so on. My favourite scene in the film comes near the end, when one of the women – every story revolves around women who are dressed with alarming uniformity, in dark, dull colours – hops into a cab. She doesn’t know the driver is a cop. He assumes she is a sex worker (This character is different from the one described above, who is actually a sex worker). After driving around for a bit, the woman senses that something is wrong. They’ve come to a sort of checkpost, and a man with a gun and a torchlight is stopping cars and making checks.
The panicked woman tells the driver, “Oh God, I’m in trouble. Please do something. Say we’re related. Say that we’re married. My name is Nayereh and my daughter, Negar.” To her dismay, she sees that the man with the gun knows the driver of the car, whom he addresses with the honorific, ‘Hajji’. The woman pleads with the driver, “It’s not what you think, Hajji.” He says, “So why did you get in the car?” She says, “Because you stopped.” He says, “That’s not reason enough.” She says, “It was the first time. Please let me go. I have a child. Please, my little girl is alone on the street. If I don’t go now, I’ll lose her. It’s all been a mistake. It won’t happen again. Please let me go.”