Monday, May 14, 2018

A Hollywooder in the Land of Persia: Remembering Esmail Koushan (by Nima Hassani-Nasab)

Originally written by my friend Nima Hassani-Nasab for Underline -- the magazine I edit for the British Council -- I'm reposting it here with the intention of adding more images and posters of the notoriously prolific filmmaker Esmail Koushan. - EK

Was Esmail Koushan ‘the father of Iranian cinema’? Did he father a monstrosity? Several decades after the career of this noted figure ended, these questions still have no clear answer.

History accords to Dr Koushan an indisputably important role in the development of the Iranian film industry. An appreciation of this fact, and of Koushan’s considerable efforts as pioneer and influence within the industry, has meant that his renown has endured regardless of the quality and value of his works from an aesthetic perspective. He deserves credit for his stubborn and combative efforts to ensure the development of a professional production process in every area of the industry; from this point of view, Koushan certainly has the right to be considered the father of Iranian cinema.

Tears and Laughter (1963)
If we consider the case of The Storm of Life (1948), the first Iranian-made ‘talkie’ (vs. Lor Girl made in 1932 in India), directed by Ali Daryabeigi, we can be certain that the real author behind the film was none other than Koushan. He worked as cinematographer, editor and producer of the film; more importantly, it was his precise and thorough understanding of the production process, the industry and the importance of technocratic organisation in creating a cinematic product that really launched the film industry in Iran.

The Dawn of Pagans (Esmail Koushan, 1968)
The early dissolution of Mitra Film and the establishment of Pars Film was a key influence on Koushan’s decision to produce on a national scale. When he was credited as writer, director, director of photography, editor and producer of Amir’s Imprisonment (1948), he showed the world the tremendous variety and potency of his artistic and professional abilities. From 1948 to 1971 he directed 30 films and produced about 100, setting a record within the film industry of a single country. Koushan’s range of work, both as a director and producer, was highly diverse – so much so, in fact, that it is impossible to give a single account of his style, ideology, or worldview.

Koushan (second from right) with friends

On the other hand, most of the genres and styles that emerged in popular Iranian cinema would draw their inspiration from his first productions, with their familiar formulas, structures and clichés. In The Storm of Life, he created a model for a national melodrama, one which even now is put to good use. All Iranian cinema until the 1979 revolution is indebted in some way to Koushan’s early productions for their themes and characters. There’s the pure and innocent woman who, faced with great difficulties, ends up working in cabarets; various rogues, transgressors, villains and seducers; and the sticky ends met by those who worship money, and prefer worldly goods to love and humanity. Koushan was the first to realise the importance of casting well-known performers, introducing early stars such as Delkash and Naser Malek-Moti’i, and also taught Iranian filmmakers to combine cinematic narrative with music, song and dance.

The Ghost's Vengeance (Esmail Koushan, 1960)

Even evaluating Koushan purely as a director is not a simple task. He also had a central role as producer of his own works and there is no reliable source to tell us why he made some of his films himself but not others. What place did directing, in the sense of management and creative and artistic control over the film, have in the vocabulary of Pars Film’s productions? In whatever genre he worked, Koushan never wanted anything other than to present simple, clichéd and entertaining stories accessible to the lowest classes of society. His films offer no evidence of any interest in aesthetics, any desire to work creatively with the visuals, innovate with the storyline, or experiment with the instruments of production.

Mother (Esmail Koushan, 1951)

Perhaps the most important contribution of Koushan’s cinematic career can be found in his technical and production ambition. He seems to have been interested only in extending the scope and scale of film production; from his setting up and expansion of Pars Film, even after a terrible fire, to the growth of its production facilities to cover several hectares so as to be able to film historical dramas; and even his enthusiasm for increasing the size of cinema screens, which resulted in the making of the first black and white CinemaScope film in Iran (Accusation, 1956) and the first colour CinemaScope picture (The Runaway Bride, 1958). This tendency towards an aesthetic of ‘the bigger, the better’ seems to have been the consequence of a rather raw and naïve understanding of all the glories of world cinema as it was then developing, one that failed to grasp the reasons for these developments. Koushan even tried his best to get access to the world market through joint productions, but his film collaborations with France, Germany, Turkey, and even Israel (The Port of Love, 1967) led nowhere.

Men and Raods (Naser Malek-Motii, 1963), produced by Koushan

Compared to the films he produced, Koushan’s directorial work shows little variety, and a number of leaps and risks he took in order to break the familiar mould that he had himself created were failures. He made The Beautiful Demon (1963) with one eye on the reception given to Samuel Khachikian’s new wave of Iranian crime drama. It was an attempt to make something more serious and structured than his usual melodramas, but it was neither a box office success nor did it attain the quality of Khachikian’s work. The Ghost’s Revenge (1960) is a horror comedy featuring a ghost which flies up into the sky at the end of the film, but the consequence of its poor box office was that Koushan went back to his tried and tested, and thoroughly repetitive, formulas.

Broken Spell (Syamak Yasami, 1958) produced by Koushan

Koushan also tried his best to create a Persian language musical melodrama, to capture something of the atmosphere of Spanish gypsy song and dance. Tears and Laughter (1963) is based on a Spanish film Koushan had dubbed into Persian years before, but he soon realised that the public taste could not be changed overnight.

The Runaway Bride (1958)

During the course of his strange career, Koushan even remade Mr. X (1957), an Indian version of an HG Wells science fiction story, retaining Wells’ original title, The Invisible Man (1966), hoping to bequeath a new genre to Iranian cinema, but was unsuccessful. The reason for this failure was once again the unchanging taste of audiences, but also the poor quality of the films, each one of which appeared to be more akin to a parody of a particular genre or model, but in the familiar form of Filmfarsi.

Don’t Joke, I’ll Get Upset (1966)

Even when Koushan adapted existing masterpieces, the result was no different. He tried his hand at the cross-dressing, or mistaken identity, comedy with the film I Love You (1963) and a few years later with the production of Don’t Joke, I’ll Get Upset (1966), based on Some Like It Hot (1959) and Bedtime Story (1964). Koushan’s version of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece alone could serve as evidence of the very different essences of two cinematic traditions.

Pars Film logo

Aside from all these various and scattered efforts, Koushan is both famous and infamous for his historical works. An important part of his directing career, including his last ten films, were devoted to the genre. He drew on stories from the time of Cyrus the Great to the Safavids (sixteenth and seventeenth century Iran); from the medieval poetry of the Qabus Nameh and the works of Nezami, to Iranian folktales. What is somewhat odd is that in every case the result was the same. Strange, ridiculous and fantastic films which pushed the satirical and comic elements of their stories as far as was possible – the actors in all kinds of make-up and wearing absurd costumes, flailing around, dancing, laughing and fighting on the massive sets of Pars Film.

The poster for Amir Arsalan (1966) in CinemaScope and "full color"

When Farrokh Ghaffari saw the film Amir Arsalan (1966) for the first time at the Cinémathèque in Paris he was struck by the unintentional surrealism of the film and remarked that the meeting of satire, metaphysics and fantasy with bad taste and Filmfarsi produced something quite special.

Esmail Koushan with his children

Dr Esmail Koushan, for all his varied efforts and his astounding work rate, his struggles to establish a professional production regime and company against a landscape of artisan producers, his achievements in film publishing and professional and union activities, ultimately remained a Hollywooder in the land of Persia. At gatherings and in articles he was insulted and mocked for all his productions and his pains, and yet he always defended his work: not like a failed artist might, but as a successful producer and craftsman would.

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