I like many products of contemporary Iranian cinema: for instance, the movies of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Majid Majidi–to name only three of a long and distinguished line-up of directors. Theirs is a neorealism with a compellingly different grammar from that of other products of the genre. There is another, not-so-overt reason for the pleasure I take in watching Iranian movies: their soundtracks are in Persian. Given the history of Persian influence on Urdu, Hindustani and Hindi in the Indian sub-continent and the significant presence of Persian words in the vocabularies of these languages, to watch an Iranianmovie is to be able to enjoy little, pleasurable moments of comprehension even while being the slave of the subtitle.
In some ways, this pleasure of mine is related to that I take in watching German movies. I’ve taken precisely one semester of German: the Grundstufe Eins at the Max Mueller Institute. That brief but rigorous introduction equipped me with enough German to conduct rudimentary conversations and to understand some movie dialog as I follow subtitles. But there is a crucial difference. I learned German during my university years. My sense of familiarity with the language is of a markedly different kind. The little starts of recognition as I watch a German movie trigger a largely intellectual sympathy; my pleasure is partially grounded in being able to pierce the veil of linguistic unfamiliarity and in making a connection with an acquired knowledge and skill. There is perhaps some relief at having postponed intellectual decrepitude. (And who knows, perhaps there’s a little art-house, movie-snob smugness too. Why deny it?)
In the case of movies in Persian, when I hear and recognize a Persian word as one that I know in Urdu/Hindustani/Hindi, something deeper seems to stir. While in a straight-forward sense, I’m reacting to the insightful pleasure of a quasi-etymological lesson–here lies the root of a previously familiar word–perhaps it’s also the sense of having come into contact with an entire history, of having made a connection with a diverse set of cultures, of reaching out into a span of time that, at the very least, extends for several hundred years. The impenetrability of the Iranian context, made even more fraught by its location in the current political geography of my mind, and seemingly shrouded by an incomprehensible language, suddenly lifts at that moment, and I feel a resonance, through the spoken word, with the characters on the screen. (As is ironically appropriate, these moments of connection are more likely to take place while I watch an Iranian movie than when I watch movies in some Indian languages. Adoor Gopalakrishnan‘s movies–in Malyalam–would be considerably less informed for me; to watch them requires exclusive dependence on the English subtitles. This is not the case with movies in say, Bengali or Gujarati.)
This brief encounter is transitory; I cannot understand all the spoken lines, and I certainly cannot read Persian. Then the box snaps shut again, and I’m back on the outside looking in.