Ayneh (1997) (aka The Mirror)
Jafar Panahi

“I’m not acting anymore.”



Iranian cinema has been getting a lot of attention in this first decade of the new century and rightly so. The contribution of stalwarts like Abbas Kiarostami is being progressively applauded with Kiarostami himself being called as the unofficial leader of the whole movement. And if we jot down the names of the most vital of his Iranian contemporaries, we would almost instantly arrive at one name that has been surprising the audience with the sheer power of the films he has been creating with shocking consistency – Jafar Panahi. The charming The White Balloon (1995) put him on the world cinema map firmly and films like The Circle (2000) just added to his glory. But a quiet little film that he made in between these two films, Ayneh (1997), is one that has intrigued me for years and has made me return to it multiple times.

One should be careful while furnishing the story of Ayneh for the very plot is subject to one’s own interpretations. You’ll know what I mean when you see the film’s tradition defying form that can by itself start a perpetually healthy conversation about cinema. You have a little girl Mina ready to go home after the school. Her mother has not come to pick her up. So she decides to go home on her own. There are a lot of struggles in her venture and a hope for triumph seems vague. And suddenly at one point in the film, Mina throws down her scarf and announces that she is not going to act any more. This is where we are revealed that what we have witnessed is a film shooting. Mina quits and walks home as the crew continues to film her from their vehicle as the shooting for the day seems to stand aborted. Or does it?

The film’s title translates to the word Mirror – an instrument that one can look at in two ways– one that reproduces reality as it is without any ornamentation or one that resembles reality only because it completely inverts it point by point. One is a statement about absolute truth and the other about absolute falsehood. And like this paradoxical idea that the mirror presents, Panahi’s film uses the cinematic screen as a mirror that simultaneously presents both striking similarity between the two formally different sections of the film and stark difference between the fiction of the first part and the intriguing “reality” of the second. Mina struggles to find the way to her home and her tongue-tied nature nearly shuts off the possibilities. On the other hand, we see a bolder Mina going out into the wilderness of Tehran and sorting it out herself. But what remains same is her untainted childishness that shows that children are after all, children. Inherently, this duality makes one think how fiction tries to track reality closely and how reality itself is so fictionalized.

There is a clearly defined point in the film where Mina breaches the fourth wall and quits shooting. She goes off from the “sets” and walks home on her own. The film makers continue to film her nevertheless without her knowledge. Now, it is comfortable to assume that what ever has happened till now is the fictional part and what ever is going on is nothing but reality. But are we witnessing reality as it is? How do we know that this dissidence of Mina isn’t staged too? How do we know that what the director is filming in the obviously “candid camera” style isn’t a highly skilled manipulation of the filmic medium? And are we sure that there is no artifice here even though the style is clearly self referential. I am reminded of another skillful film from Iran. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), we have a wannabe director who infiltrates the home of an unsuspecting family impersonating as Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He is caught alright and tried in the court in front of the camera. Note that this is as complex as films get. Kiarostami reconstructed the film with the same family and the crook and staged what happened earlier almost exactly. The trial scene is the real trial though. Here, the protagonist tries to gain sympathy by elaborating his love for cinema. This may be real, but how do we know that this person is not acting because of the presence of the camera? This meditation on the classic Schrödinger cat is perhaps the insuperable study of the nature of cinema but Panahi too manages to put forth some very thought-provoking questions on the ontology of the most popular art.

We as the audience play the most vital part in its execution and his property of Ayneh which places the audience as the completing half of the film is its biggest success. With its all-encompassing sound design that includes even stray sounds such as car horns and other banal conversations, the first half pushes one to accept it readily as a near-genuine representation of reality. But once that illusion is shattered, we are pushed on to a new version of “reality”. We mock ourselves for believing in the first half and comfortably settle once more into the new atmosphere coolly assuring ourselves that this is indeed reality. All this is engrossing and fun. However, the more demanding viewer will be once bitten, twice shy. (S)he will hold the film at an arm’s length. (S)he will be skeptical about what is happening on screen and will try to observe the film rather than get involved. In short, a complete detachment from the medium is achieved – an idea that giants like Godard have been trying for decades.

I like Panahi’s more “conventional” ventures like Crimson Gold (2003) and Circle (2000) which are pretty staggering in their own ways, but what sweeps me off my feet is his films like Ayneh and Offside (2006). In Offside, like Ayneh, Panahi seamlessly blends reality and fiction as we know it. We begin to question about the boundary between them. Is the football match a synthetic premise to construct the film’s ideas or is the drama outside the stadium really happening like the match itself? What other arts have been doing for decades – reflecting on the medium themselves rather than the content they carry – cinema has started picking up. At the end of it all, the content of Ayneh – the girl, her house, the social details –seems secondary even though a lot is open to discussion. And isn’t that a huge success for a such a minimal film such as this? And aren’t we all glad that filmmakers such as Kiarostami and Panahi exist?


Tahaan: Disarmingly simple

Santosh Sivan is one of those very few DOP turned directors that are spoken of nowadays. In spite of their box office results, Santosh Sivan’s films always create expectations. It is not often that we see a wide release of his films. And when they do, it is wise to catch them up on the big screen. Watching Tahaan: A Boy With A Grenade, it is inevitable for one to be reminded of his staggering work Theeviravaathi: The Terrorist (1999), for both graze similar and contemporary themes.

Set and shot is the paradisal Indian (!) state of Kashmir, Tahaan (Purav Bhandare) is the story of a young boy of the same name and his friend/donkey Birbal. Situations change for the worse and Tahaan is forced to separate from Birbal. Tahaan is shattered and decides to get back Birbal at any expense. For this, Tahaan travels from one place to another, meeting one character to another and facing one peril to another, in the end being exploited in many ways, much like Birbal himself. Meanwhile, his mute mother (Sarika) is desperately is search for her husband, who went missing three years ago. Though in utter distress, her only hope is a miracle, which seems to be the only way out for all of the valley’s residents. Amidst the echoes of bombs and bullets in the serene valley, Tahaan’s objective, however, remains simple and straightforward – Get Birbal back. Unlike Malli of The Terrorist, Tahaan’s primary aim is utterly disjoint from the state of the affairs of the country.

Made in the same tradition as Iranian gems such as Marooned in Iraq (2002), Turtles Can Fly (2004) and a few others, Tahaan is tightly grounded in the culture of the state and also in the present political turmoil of the region. Unlike many of its Iranian counterparts that enthrall the audience with the sheer simplicity of their plot, Santosh Sivan’s script tries to bring in the larger issues into the picture, but never once changing perspective or taking a stand. Thus, Tahaan strictly remains a story of the titular character, without any pretense.

Few directors in India remain in the same cadre as Sivan when it comes to visual composition. If it was the haunting and dense jungles of coastline Lanka in The Terrorist, it is the vast and white snowy stretches of Kashmir in Tahaan. Sivan’s cinematography effectively uses the widescreen to capture the awe-inspiring peaks of Kashmir in its entirety. The sound design needs a definite mention for its remarkable ear for detail and naturalness with its borderline synchronized sound.

No complaints in the acting department of the film. Anupam Kher is at his easy best and churns out the best performance of the film. All his lines succeed, in spite of being very mediocre and deliberately inserted. Sarika’s self-assuring quietness and her countenance gel well with her character and makes it a very credible effort. Rahul Bose, after a series of debacles, shines as a dimwit in his earthy and lovable role. Purav Bhandare, who plays the title character, does a decent job too.

Like The Terrorist, Sivan goes totally minimalist, in spite of not being under financial constraints this time around. This particularly shows in the film’s near-zero depiction of on-screen violence and its stubbornness against visual extravaganza, reminding us again of its spectacular predecessor.  This not only reminds us that grandness does not necessitate lavishness but also shows how Tahaan is shielded from the trauma of war, which apparently is the need of the hour. However, Tahaan does differ from The Terrorist, unfortunately, for the worse. More verbose and noisier than the former, Tahaan tries hard to elucidate the protagonist’s charm and bring in calculated humour, which could have been made very self-sufficient considering the quality of the material at hand. As a result, Tahaan does not linger in the minds of the viewers permanently and fails to stalk them long after the movie is over.

Though more overtly dramatic and conventional than The Terrorist, Tahaan may, to an extent, serve as a companion piece to it. The Terrorist depicts how the basic human nature is interminable and unalterable be what the external situation whereas Tahaan shows how the innocence of childhood is unduly exploited by (anti) social elements, although it remains untainted by them.