By Vishwas Kulkarni
With Trump backing out of the Iran nuclear deal, F/riction revisits All The Shah’s Men, which recounts the dethroning of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister in 1953, and Under the Shadow, a critically acclaimed horror film set during Iran’s Cultural Revolution.
There’s a cold comfort in knowing that worse things are going to happen to the world with Donald Trump heading the United States. But the scuppering of the Iran nuclear deal will always be one of the highlights of his “legacy”. Yet, Trump’s antics have brought into sharp focus a much misunderstood nation. How exactly did Iran come to be this bête noire of the West and the Arab world in the first place?
To unveil the enigma of Persia, it is edifying to read All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer. The tome offers a blow-by-blow account of how the CIA plotted to dethrone Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953. It’s a shameful slice of modern history that damaged one of the world’s oldest civilisations.
And why did the United States and Great Britain do this? Well, one of Mossadegh’s misdemeanours was to nationalise the exploitative Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Under colonial agreements, not unlike how the East India Company ruled India, Iranians were not allowed control over their oil. Thus by nationalising the “firm”, the Iranian Prime Minister was reclaiming his nation’s resources, hoping to share the wealth from all those petro-dollars with his people.
Kinzer’s book contextualises how Iran’s people were short-changed thanks to vested Anglo-American interests in the course of a week. The ailing Mossadegh, despite becoming Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1951, was no match for the machinations of the CIA and other players, and the Shah of Iran was restored to his throne. But do regime changes that are forced onto a people really work in the long run? Not really, as the book further explains: the iron fist with which the Shah of Iran ruled his lot paved the path for Islamic fundamentalists to overthrow him in 1979. As an Iranian intellectual from the post-revolutionary generation puts it in an American foreign policy journal: “The 1953 coup and its consequences were the starting point for the political alignments in today’s Middle East and inner Asia. With hindsight, can anybody say the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was inevitable? Or did it only become so once the aspirations of the Iranian people were temporarily expunged in 1953?”
There has been so much bad blood between the West and Iran that by getting the troubled nation to sign the nuclear deal, Obama made quantum leaps in global diplomacy. It was not until March 2000 that America acknowledged its role in the coup of 1953 and how it damaged a fragile, volatile lot for decades. Donald Trump’s decision this week has put paid to any hope for peace in the Middle East. If anything, it has brought Iranian hardliners, who have much to gain from keeping their nation isolated and in the grip of its clerics, back to the forefront.
Isolated as Iran might be from the world at large, it is an intellectual powerhouse: a nation where subversion is not merely an artistic caprice, it is a national birthright. But can a horror film become a political statement on the life and times of a Persian woman? Hell, yes.
Isolated as Iran might be from the world at large, it is an intellectual powerhouse: a nation where subversion is not merely an artistic caprice, it is a national birthright.
Under the Shadow is a stunning cinematic achievement set in the turbulent Tehran of the 1980s. Directed by Babak Anvari and starring Narges Rashidi in a career-defining role, Under the Shadow is quite literally, a visual dynamite. Shideh, played by Rashidi, a former medical student, is denied the right to continue her studies for her role in leftist protests in post-revolution Iran (so much for liberation; this is the deadliest opening in cinematic history). Despite Baghdad stepping up bombing raids on Iran, she decides to stay back with her daughter in a city that is increasingly resembling a ghost town. And what is a ghost town without ghosts?
Under The Shadow’s brilliance lies in how it merges the claustrophobic interiority of its characters with the larger political context at hand. By the time demonic forces begin to unleash themselves on the mother-daughter duo in their abandoned apartment complex, we are so drawn into Shideh’s predicament as a woman in a hostile country that Under The Shadow becomes much more than a horror film.
“Basically, I was just tapping into childhood memories,” said director Babak Anvari in an interview with Den of Geek. “I was born in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and by the time the war ended, I was more or less the same age as the child in the film, so a lot of the things that inspired the story are chats I had with my parents and stories I heard from relatives and family friends, and obviously I took inspiration from them.” When cajoled further to cite the “horror films” that have inspired the film, he invokes The Turn of the Screw, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.
There is something deeply unsettling in how the chador, the piece of cloth Iranian women wrap around their heads and upper body, is used as a motif in Under The Shadow. It’s also a reminder that out of great conflict, comes great creativity.