"Birds of a Feather" - Ali Khazai-far (2010)

Birds of a Feather (Kabootar ba Kabootar, 2010), a romantic comedy-drama written and directed by Ali Khazai-far, was set and filmed in Mashhad, Iran. It tells the parallel stories of two separate couples who find their romantic relationships encumbered by social expectations. Early on, the film seems to be telling two separate stories with their separate focalizations, but as things unfold, some connections between the two are established. And the themes underlying those connections are what elevate this film somewhat above what at first seems to be just a cute but mundane comedy.

One of the interesting aspects of the film is its presentation of small social class distinctions. That is, the film is not examining distinctions between the upper and lower classes, but is looking at the more subtle social distinctions among people who we might say are mostly all (lower) middle class.  And for many people, such small social distinctions can be matters of great importance.

There are three dramatic theatres of action in the film, and the first twelve minutes of the film introduces each of them. 
  1. Saeed and Mahboobeh are a newly married couple and in love.  In the opening scene Mahboobeh expresses regret that they got married too soon – before her father was able to deliver a dowry (jahizieh) for her [1].  So they don’t have basic household items (refrigerator, TV, etc.) that Mahboobeh is used to.  And since Saeed is a freelance plasterer for small projects in Mashhad, they don’t have much of an income and have to share an apartment with another couple.  Saeed, though, doesn’t seem to care much about that and is just happy to be with Mahboobeh.
  2. Ghassem Maleki operates a small print and photocopying shop near a government office (an office of the home ministry, I think) and his customers are mostly people who have to submit copied forms to that government office.  He is a jovial, thirtyish, and chubby bachelor who lives with his retired, widowed father – a man who is also jovial, but who complains that it is long past the time for his son to have found a wife. But it is evident that Ghassem’s unglamorous appearance doesn’t identify him as the ideal marriage partner.
  3. Saeed’s mother, Banoo, works as a cleaning woman for Mrs. Entesham, an elderly widow living alone in a large stately house. Mrs. Entesham cordially treats Banoo as an equal and invites her to join her for lunch at her dining table. But Banoo is too aware of their perceived social separation and humbly prefers to sit on the floor, where she is more comfortable.  It is later revealed that Mrs. Entesham lives on her deceased husband's small pension and his little money, but that fact does not diminish the wide social gulf between her and Banoo's family.
From the early scenes two issues emerge: Saeed’s desire to improve his material circumstances so that he can please his wife and Ghassem’s desire to find a wife for himself.  In both cases the men are frustrated and feel they have to respond to perceived social expectations.

Ghassem’s supposed ally in his quest to find a suitable wife is Rafat, who is the wife of his brother. To make marriage proposals in the traditional Iranian culture, one goes through the khastegari process, which is a semi-formal practice dating back to Zoroastrian (i.e. pre-Islamic) times. Under these arrangements, a member of the would-be groom’s family pays a formal visit to the parents of the intended bride, during which meeting the merits of the two candidates, who are usually not present, are discussed.  If the proposed couple has not met previously, then the girl is supposed to come out after the meeting between the family representatives and serve tea to the potential groom, during which time they may become better acquainted. Rafat has been arranging various khastegari sessions in search of a bride for Ghassem, but her focus on wealth and upscale family status instead of looking for a suitable personal match almost guarantees failure. In one humorous khastegari session setup by Rafat, the bridal candidate, after taking one look at the schlumpy Ghassem, feigns to be suffering from schizophrenia.

Later we see Ghassem in his print shop, where a woman, Reyhaneh, arrives looking for suitable forms for filing a complaint. We get a wry view of how things work in this sphere of interacting with the government when Ghassem shows her the form and adds, “we have filled-out forms as well” and “there’s a guy in front of the court who can type out your complaint.”  Reyhaneh explains that her brother has stolen her intended dowry (that is, the dowry that would be offered were she to get married), and she wants to sue him for the theft.  She confesses glumly to Ghassem that her brother told her, “you never had a suitor and you never will”, so he might as well take the dowry merchandise for himself.

We learn a bit later that Reyhaneh’s brother is the already-introduced Saeed, who has taken her dowry things and now given them to Mahboobeh, who had lamented not having her own dowry.  Anyway, Ghassem is naturally attracted to Reyhaneh, and they each admire each other’s genuineness and avoidance of pretence (Ghassem openly confesses to her that he doesn’t even have a high school diploma).  He decides that Reyhaneh is the woman for him and tells Rafat to initiate a khastegari proposal with Reyhaneh’s family.

Rafat agrees to do it, but when she goes alone to visit Reyhaneh’s mother, Banoo, she is scornful of the family’s low social status. After all, Reyhaneh and Banoo live in a small apartment in a shabby part of town, and Banoo has to work as a cleaning woman. Rafat comes back to tell Ghassem that he should marry into a better family than that. For Rafat, marriage signifies an alliance between two families, and the two families should match, and she reminds him that “birds of a feather flock together”.

Reyhaneh is humiliated by Rafat’s dismissive attitude towards her, and she hasn’t even discussed with her that she has no dowry to offer.  So she decides to preempt a process that can only end in disappointment, and she responds to the khastegari proposal by refusing the offer.  Ghassem is stunned to hear of the rejection, and presumes that Reyhaneh has rejected him for being unattractive.  It is evident to the viewer, though, that Ghassem and Reyhaneh are right for each other, but social prejudices are preventing them from getting together.

Meanwhile Banoo has been asked to come over and dust off Mrs. Entesham’s tall bookshelves, and to reach their height, she brings Saeed along to help her. Saeed is wide-eyed when he sees the  large, well-furnished house, and when he is left alone to do some dusting, he succumbs to temptation and steals one of Mrs. Entesham’s necklaces. When he returns home he gives the necklace to Mahboobeh, claiming that he had recently received it in payment for his plastering work.

The story has now reached its low point.  Ghassem and Reyhaneh are apart and lonely. There are more khastegari meetings arranged for both of them, but neither wants to have anything to do with these supposed birds of the same feather that are introduced to them.  And, of course, Mrs. Entesham soon discovers that one of her necklaces is missing, and she knows full well who took it. 

But the film does come to an uplifting resolution not by righting wrongs or exposing wrongdoing, but by acts of grace. 
  • Mrs. Entesham speaks to the guilt-stricken Saeed and tells him that he is already a rich man, because he is loved by his mother, his sister, and his wife.  She forgives him and suggests some minor work he can do for her to “pay” for the necklace.  Saeed’s tears reveal that he has seen her compassionate and soul-stirring light. 
  • And Ghassem, after reflecting on what happened, comes to the conclusion that Reyhaneh rejected him out of compassion, not calculation.  He goes to her and revives their relationship by reasserting his commitment to her.
In the end, the story does show people coming together who have the same feathers. But these are "inner feathers" of compassionate character, not the external feathers that appear in superficial social circumstances. Mrs. Entesham and Ghassem decide to project their love, even when they may have felt that they experienced some form of manipulation. And this loving response not only redeems them, but also the people with whom they interact.  The art of this film is the way it reveals those inner feathers to the other characters and to us, too.

On the surface, Birds of a Feather seems like just another lightweight comedy, but it goes beyond that and has an uplifting philosophical message in the way the relationship issues are resolved.  Interestingly, we are shown people who follow traditional customs but who also capable of seeing things and acting in flexible ways [2].

Khazai-far visually tells his story simply, but skilfully. Cinematically, there are few establishing shots, and much of the film comprises medium closeups of individuals conversing with each other in shot/reverse-shot sequences.  There are also very few moving-camera shots, but there are occasional shots involving a slow forward-tracking towards the subject to enhance our focus of attention.  Overall the cinematography is unspectacular, but the presentation of visual dialogic separation is expertly carried out.   

Of the two romantic relationships presented, the one involving Ghassem and Reyhaneh is more interesting and dramatically compelling. The basic outline of this narrative thread reminds me very much of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty (1953), an award-winning television play that was directed by Delbert Mann and which was the basis for their subsequent Oscar-winning film, Marty (1955). I wonder if Khazai-far was familiar with that earlier work. In any case, both works celebrate a person’s ability to ignore circumstantial social constraints and choose what is most true to his authentic nature: to seize love's opportunity when it appears.

  1. There are actually two types of dowry in Iran.  Like the customary dowry in other parts of the world, the jahizieh is provided by the bride’s family and comprises household items. There is also the mehrieh, however, which is more of a financial investment (often in the form of gold coins) supplied by the groom’s family to the bride and carries specific legal stipulations. In this film only the jahizieh is mentioned.
  2. The presentation of human hair was interesting. Like Salma and the Apple (2011), none of the women in the film show any head hair at all. The men, on the other hand, are mostly clean-shaven, with a few having tidy mustaches.

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