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6 June 2015

Âvâz-e gonjeshk-hâ (2008)

2008
Directed by: Majid Majidi
Music: Hossein Alizadeh
Starring: Mohammed Amir Naji, Hamid Aghazi, 
Hassan Rezae, Kamran Dehgan, 
Maryam Akbari, Neshat Nazari, Shabnam Aklaghi
It's been quite some time since I last blogged. Many things were going on simultaneously and I had neither the time, the inclination, or the energy to blog. That hiatus was broken last week, and I figured that if I had already posted one post, even if only a book recommendation, perhaps it was time I got back to reviewing films again. 

I have watched a few movies during this time, just to unwind. (Watching both Piku and Tanu Weds Manu Returns in the theatre was great, and I cannot recommend the former enough.) Out of them, a few were movies that were decent enough, but didn't make me feel compelled to write about them. But there were a couple that were really, really nice, and worth finding the energy to review. 

Majid Majidi is not an unfamiliar name to lovers of good cinema. His Children of Heaven and Colour of Paradise are both films that I have watched, and loved. Yet, when we got Âvâz-e gonjeshk-hâ (The Song of Sparrows) from Netflix, the next movie in our queue, I wasn't sure I wanted to watch it just then. Reading the synopsis on the back of the DVD didn't really enthuse me either. But my husband put it on, and since I had nothing better to do except curl up in a blanket, I watched too. I was glad I did.
Karim (Mohammed Amir Naji), an impoverished Iranian villager, lives with his wife Nargis, and his three children, Haniyeh, Hossain and Zarah in a little village outside Tehran. He is the foreman on an ostrich farm. One day, while he is at work, his cousin passes on an urgent message from his wife. 
His elder daughter, Haniyeh (Shabnam Aklaghi) has lost her hearing aid while playing in the village's water-storage tank. Filled with sludge, and water weeds, Karim's son, Hossain (Hamid Aghazi) and his friends still believe that there is fish in the tank. They have ambitions, these boys - they are going to clear up the tank, put in fresh water, and then cultivate goldfish. When they multiply, they will sell the fish and become millionaires. The exasperated Karim is more interested in finding his daughter's hearing aid.
When the children eventually find it, Karim is distressed to find that it is not working. He doesn't even know whether it can be repaired, but he cleans it, and gets his daughter to check it - the children, fearful of getting punished if it really doesn't work, pretend that it does. Haniyeh lip reads and answers her father's questions, while her brother prompts her when she can't get it right. When Karim realises what is happening, he is furious with Hossain. His wife stops him before he gives the boy what he considers a well-deserved beating.
The next day, Karim takes it to the doctor who confirms his suspicions - he will have to go to Tehran to get it fixed, or replaced. But it will be expensive, and Karim doesn't have insurance. He decides to ask his boss for an advance on his salary. His daughter is completely deaf without the hearing aid, and she has exams coming up.
But misfortune strikes - amidst moving the ostriches into another field, one escapes. Despite his, and others', best efforts, they are unable to capture it and bring it back. What is worse, Karim is blamed for its escape and fired from his job. With no other option, not even to question why he was fired (his belongings are just put in a heap outside the door), he mumbles a despairing 'It's not fair' to the ostriches, before he takes the ostrich egg that Ramezan, the office clerk, gives him and leaves the farm. 
 
But when he reaches home, he puts on a brave face. It was tiring, he tells Nargis, and he wasn't getting paid too well either. He will just have to find another job, where he doesn't have to deal with dumb ostriches. 

The next day, he drops Haniyeh at school and promises her that he will have a new hearing aid for her very soon. She is not to worry. And then, he makes a trip to Tehran where he is told that it is the microphone in the hearing aid that is broken; it cannot be fixed. And the waiting time for a new one is three to four months. Or, if his need is urgent, as indeed it is, he could buy one in the open market - it will cost him 350,000 tomans.

As the dejected Karim leaves, wondering where he's going to find that sort of money, he is accosted by a man who sits on the pillion of his motorbike without so much as a by-your-leave. Karim's been mistaken for a 'motorbike taxi' by the man, who is so busy talking on his cellphone that he barely has the time to tell Karim where he wants to go. 
And so Karim begins his new job - a 'taxi' driver plying his motorbike through the crowded city streets. (He quickly learns that he has to pay a 'fee' to park his motorbike and solicit passengers in certain areas.) Because he's new to it, he has no clue how much he should charge, so he tells his customers to give him whatever they feel comfortable giving. His last customer of the day, a rich builder, gives him 20,000 tomans for rescuing him from a traffic jam and taking him to his construction site. Karim is aghast at such riches. So much so, he rushes after the man, thinking he must have made a mistake. But the man drives away, and Karim is left with the money. 
Still at the construction site, he spots a lot of thrown-away stuff. When he asks the foreman, the latter tells him that it is trash - he can take away anything he wants from the pile. Soon, Karim is going back home, a TV antenna tied to his motorbike. 
He's earned so much in one day that he decides to continue. He enlists his family's help in cleaning up his old motorcycle. The next day, he's back in Teheran. The money he earns is a lot more than he could ever imagine, and so he continues his daily trips, plying his motorbike as a taxi in the city, and bringing back 'useful' things from the construction site that he can repair and sell. 
 Days pass. One day, he manages to get a job moving goods from a warehouse to the shops. On the way, his old motorbike breaks down and he loses sight of the cavalcade. Still not knowing his way around the city, and not knowing what to do with the refrigerator that he has with him, he takes it back home. When his wife asks (she refuses to have anything to do with it), he tells her that he's holding it for someone and he will return it the next day.
That night, Karim can't sleep. The next morning, he takes the refrigerator and goes back to the city. For a moment, he's tempted to sell it in the market, keeping the money for himself. He even hawks it around in a couple of shops, waving away one man because the money isn't enough. But he catches sight of a truck of ostriches and something about them reminds him of his sense of integrity. He delivers the refrigerator to the shop it was supposed to go to, and they, pleased with his honesty, pay him 15,000 tomans as a tip, and promise him regular work. On the way back, he stops by at the construction site as is his wont, to pick up anything he thinks he might have a use for.
On his way home, he comes across his children and Hossain's friends selling roses by the wayside. Karim is furious. Isn't he making enough to provide for them all? Hossain runs away in fear, but once they reach home, Karim pulls out his belt to whip his son. Nargis protects Hossain from his father's anger - the boy was only trying to raise money to buy the fishes! Karim is so angry that he asks Nargis to get out of the way or he will raise his hand against her as well. Pushing past her, still furious, he marches off to the old water cistern armed with a pickaxe; he will break that cistern down. Only, when he reaches there, he is in for a surprise. All these days that he has been away working in the city, the boys have been working very diligently; they have  cleared away all the sludge and debris, unclogged the drains, and the water is now cold and clear. There are even sparrows nesting inside its walls now. 
Karim cannot hide his surprise or his pride. In any case, the sight of the water cistern softens his hard shell, and a rare smile makes an appearance across his weary face. It appears that he and his son have something in common - ambition, and the will to work hard.

Everyday after work, Karim spends his time repairing the old junk he brings back from the city. That, and making more money is becoming an obsession with Karim now, and their courtyard is piled high with wood frames and windows, rusty trunks and heaters, and sundry other stuff - all of which Karim intends to repair and sell. Nargis is not very happy.
But Karim has a point - if they save at least 5000 tomans every month, they can pay off all their debts in three months. But what about Haniyeh's hearing aid? demurs Nargis. 

Yes, what about Haniyeh's hearing aid? 

It appears that is the farthest thing on her father's mind as he sets his sights on earning more and more money 'to provide for his family'. In the meanwhile, he's forgotten the goal he's started out with. And then the unexpected happens.

A morality tale with a touch of whimsy, Âvâz-e gonjeshk-hâ  meanders slowly to Karim's eventual redemption. It's a quiet one, and the journey to that end is filled with lessons for everyone - Karim, Hossain, even Nargis and the girls. 

There is a deep vein of affection that ties this little family together and there are no villains here. The film is littered with lovely little vignettes of family togetherness. Nargis stitches clothes, while Haniyeh helps her mother; little Zarah squabbles with her older siblings, and tags along with them everywhere. The children, even Hossain's merry little band, are very natural, playing, shouting, working together towards a common goal. Hossain and his mother share a very warm relationship, and she quietly supports his dreams, even as she protects him from his father's quick temper.

Karim is a man who, while proud of his being able to provide for his little family, was once generous to a fault. When Ramezan gives him the ostrich egg on his last day at work, he asks Nargis to make an omelette and portions of it are sent to many families in the neighbourhood. And so, the change that sets in later when his riches turn his head, when he humiliates his wife in front of their friends by taking back a door she's given them because it is one that he's brought back from the construction site, is all the more stark. And the change begins from the very first day - when he returns from Tehran with more money than he had ever earned in a week, and installs the TV antenna that he salvaged from the construction site, he looks around proudly at all the other roofs around - they all have makeshift antennas. He is the only one in the village who has a real antenna. There is a a sense of achievement, of having 'arrived'. 
It is this pride that makes him take violent objection to Hossain's money-making schemes. It is greed that makes him want to earn even more money than he already is earning. He is becoming 'rich' and along with it, he's losing his generosity of spirit. 

It takes an accident to make him realise how much he's missed the laughter and the warmth of the earlier days. And Naji plays him beautifully. It helps that his craggy face and huge, hooked nose make him look the part. Every line, every wrinkle, is etched with emotion. But that is just the canvas. Naji paints his character with such delicate strokes that one feels what he feels -- the love he bears for his wife as he laughingly teases her from the roof of their house or the sheer despair when he's fired, for instance.
A non-professional actor when he was 'discovered' by Majidi for his The Children of Heaven, he's been a regular in Majidi's movies since then. This is his fourth collaboration with the celebrated director and he does very well indeed. (I must confess that I liked him a tad better in The Children of Heaven, though Naji won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his performance in this film.) Naji is the only 'professional actor' in this film.

Hamid Aghazi is the perfect urchin to play Hossain. Hossain is only a little boy, but he works very hard to reach his goal. And when his father is injured, he takes on the mantle of the man of the house, working overtime so he can meet his family's needs and  save enough money for the goldfish he plans to buy. Finally, when that dream shatters within inches of its fulfilment, he too learns to accept, and let go. 
On the face of it, Hossain's plans for fish farming are an absurd dream, but Hamid made it believable. He was so earnest in his role without falling into the trap of being 'cute' that he makes us root for him and his raggedy team of friends.
Maryam Akbari, similarly, is not a professional actress. Her Nargis is a quiet presence - she has not much to say or do, but she makes her presence felt. She is the strength behind Karim's hard work, and it is she who cheerfully makes their little family comfortable on her husband's income. Even her grief when her husband causes her embarrassment is reserved until she gets home. 
And when he tries to soothe her by explaining that he is doing it for the family, there is quiet dignity in the way she gets up and goes silently into the house. When he is injured climbing on his ever-growing hill of junk, not a single complaint that passes her lips. Nargis is a sweet and gentle presence in the film, and her relationship with her on-screen husband reflects that sweetness.

A bitter-sweet parable about a rural family's struggles to survive, Majidi captures the earnestness of a flawed man who succumbs to the lure of 'easy money' and loses sight of what is really essential. It is a universal tale, one that could be set anywhere and still have the same meaning and poignancy of the original. (Though it my fervent hope that Majidi will not sell the rights of this film to a mainstream Bollywood director - I'm still reeling from the travesty that was the Hindi adaptation of 'The Children of Heaven'.) And always, always, there is a reference to the ostrich - Karim either sees an ostrich egg, or an ostrich itself; in fact, he even dresses up as an ostrich in order to act as decoy so he can capture the runaway ostrich. 
When finally his self-reflection allows him to see where he erred, Karim is more able to view his son's escapades with benevolence, and to comfort him at the loss of his dream. Father and son have to both lose something before they reach a better understanding of each other.
Majidi's lensman Turaj Mansuri aids in capturing the palette of the film, painting the village with the dusty greens and browns and the city with its greys and blacks, just framing, not judging, and allowing the camera to be the audience's peephole into the characters' lives and emotions. On the way, there are some lovely visual metaphors (the fish out of the water, for instance), and amazing images such as the ostrich dance in the end. 
In fact, the ostrich images bookend the film, and the birds (and their eggs) play a prominent role, acting almost as Karim's conscience. In fact, the runaway ostrich returns to the farm in the end, just as Karim comes back to his own self. The titular sparrows only make a cameo appearance, once nesting inside the now-clear cistern, and then when Karim wakes up one morning to find them trapped in his room - he opens the windows and lets them soar free. 

The music of the film is composed by Hossain Alizadeh, a well-known Iranian composer and tar and setar instrumentalist. It stays in the background, plaintive and unobtrusive, complementing the mood of the film.

Âvâz-e gonjeshk-hâ is not always a comfortable ride for its protagonists, and there are plenty of bumps on the way, but in the end, as Karim sings, The world is a dream, the world is a lie...' 

... and they can still love, and laugh, and live.

12 comments:

  1. That sounds lovely, Anu. As soon as I read the name of the film in the headline, I thought: "Persian?" I have to admit I've only seen one film so far with even a Persian connection (and I didn't like that much; possibly a result of it being universally praised, which had raised my expectations far too high!). So I have a lot of catching up to do! This sounds like a good place to start - and that story really sounds like something which could happen just about anywhere...

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  2. Anirudha Bhattacharjee7 June 2015 at 00:43

    Good that you are back. It is a lovely story.Iran has been producing some wonderful cinema. And given the kind of stringent censorship rules they have, I must say that their work has been remarkable. Not technically brilliant, but very warm, compassionate story telling, an art which has been almost lost to commercialism and stylization.

    Coming to cinema from the ME, If you can lay your hands on Susan Yoesph's 'Habibi' (2011) (a film from the UAE), do see it. And pass me a copy too :). I am friends with Susan on facebook, but someone cannot get the film in India.

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  3. Glad you're back! I HAVE seen one film of Majid Majidi's, "Baran." It's about an Iranian construction worker who falls for an Afghan girl who came to work in place of her father at the site ... dressed as a boy, of course. Gorgeous, and more attention to beautiful framing and technique than it looks like "Avaz" is trying to be. But like you said, the descriptions of his films tend to warn me off because "depressing" with a capital "D." I know it will be a lot more complex and rewarding than that when I jump in, tho.

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  4. All of Majidi's films that I have seen are like that, Madhu. They could happen anywhere even though he roots them in his milieu. If you can get your hands on The Childen of Heaven, watch that first. That also stars Naji, and in my opinion, that was a better film than even this one. (Perhaps I'll review that one some time.)

    Iranian films have been, at least the ones that I've watched, all eminently watchable so far. They do seem to have a knack for storytelling. Do watch this one, Madhu. I think you'll like it.

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  5. but very warm, compassionate story telling, an art which has been almost lost to commercialism and stylization.

    Yes, that is exactly what it is. Perhaps because they cannot afford the glitz, they stick to telling a story as well as they can. Thank heavens!

    Thanks also for the recommendation; if I get my hands on it, I'll make sure I get a copy for you. :)

    And I can pass you some gyan on Iranian cinema. :)
    Please do. :)

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  6. Thank you, Miranda. I'm glad to be back as well. I must ashamedly confess to having the DVD of Baran in my possession for years, and I still haven't watched it! Now I should watch it, and soon. (The number of DVDs I bought, and haven't yet watched, are too many - and I still go out and buy more!)

    The people who write the DVD synopses should be shot. Really.

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  7. Will put The Children of Heaven on my wishlist, Anu!

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  8. So nice to see that you are back with a wonderful review. Sounds like a lovely film to watch. It will be a first for me to see an Iranian film. The last name Naji keeps leaping at me since my grandkids call their Nanaji, Naji :)
    Will check Netflix if it also streams this movie.

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  9. You'll like it, Madhu. It's a gem of a movie.

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  10. Thank you, Neeru. :) Let me know how you liked it.



    (I liked 'Naji' for 'Nanaji'. *grin)

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  11. Yes, it was a wonderful movie to watch, excellent acting, so natural ! Unfortunately, the subtitles would not work, no matter how I tried. Thanks to your review, I was able to get most of the story. Thanks for recommending it. Thoroughly enjoyed .

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  12. I'm so glad you liked the film, Neeru. It is a testimony to the excellent acting that you could enjoy the film even without sub-titles. I'm pleased that my review helped things along a little bit. :)

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