“Tangsir” - Amir Naderi (1974)

Tangsir (1974) was an early action/adventure film of writer-director Amir Naderi and concerns the “heroic” actions of a man in response to his having been swindled out of his life savings. The story is based on Sadegh Chubak’s novel Tangsir (1963), which is set in the southwestern Iranian coastal province of Bushehr around 1935.  Naderi’s film was a hit with the public, presumably because it evokes emotive feelings about justice, honor, and patriotism.  But the primary emotion  that hovers throughout the story is that of revenge.

Revenge is often a key element of adventure narratives.  Some wrong or injustice has been committed early on in the piece, and the protagonist in the story strives to put things right.  The visceral urge to wreak revenge may be a driving force among some of the characters, but the main goal is usually to regain what has been lost and to reestablish harmony.  However, there is a narrative subgenre that is totally devoted to revenge, itself.  The whole point of the revenge film (or revenge narrative, if you will) is to build up a sense of righteous wrath in the viewer and to have that angry tension released at the end of the story by depicting vengeful punishment on the evildoers.  Such films are often dismissed as exploitation, “drive-in theater” films and not considered to be worthy of our admiration.  Nevertheless, Tangsir belongs to that category.

There is something about Tangsir, however, that is distinct from most revenge films.  The typical revenge film devotes most of its story – say, 80% of the running time – to depicting the cruel injustices on the part of the evil perpetrators.  This builds up the frustration on the part of the viewer, who longs for justice to be reestablished.  Then at the end comes a short, cathartic climax that supposedly sets things right.  In Tangsir, though, the temporal weights are reversed.  About a quarter of the film is devoted to showing the injustices, and the remaining three-quarters are devoted to an excruciating orgy of vengeful slaughter.

The story of Tangsir concerns Zar (Za’er) Mohammad, a sturdy workman from the Tangestan area of Bushehr province.  People from that area are apparently referred to as “tangsirs” and known for having a characteristic tribal commonality of toughness [1].  Zar Mohammad feels that it is his duty to uphold the honor of the tangsirs.  The film’s narrative progresses through four sections, or acts.

1.  Zar Mohammad’s Misery
This first act relates the details of how Zar Mohammad was cheated.  This occurred two years prior to the film’s beginning when Zar Mohammad invested his life’s savings of 2,000 tomans, the results of 20 years of hard labor, in a business venture with a merchant, Abdoul Karim, from the local bazaar.  But the merchant declared bankruptcy and informed Zar Mohammad that all his money was lost, even though the merchant has continued operating his stall in the bazaar as before.  Actually, there were four people involved in setting up this swindle.
  • Abdoul Karim, the bazaar merchant
  • Ali, a lawyer who apparently keeps track of legal aspects of business affairs
  • Sheikh Abou Torab, a local mullah who prepared and authorized the original papers of the deal.
  • Rajab, another merchant and friend of Sheikh Torab, who also participated in the original arrangement.
Zar Mohammad has been beseeching all four of these characters for justice, but they all dismiss the man as a loser and abusively turn him away. Zar Mohammad begs the sheikh on hands and knees, kissing the man’s hand and asking him to have pity on him, saying he would even accept 300 tomans in return at this point. He then goes further and tells them that he would even accept a pittance of 2 rials a day so that he won’t be ashamed in front of his own people.  As it is, he says he is a laughing stock of his tribe.  In response to Zar Mohammad’s plight, they all laugh at the poor man and kick him out of the sheikh’s residence.  Seeing this humiliation, Zar Mohammad vows revenge.

We see what Zar Mohammad’s real concern is. It is primarily a matter of his dignity in front of others of his community.  He is most concerned about losing face.  This is evidently a major theme of the original novel: maintaining face was deemed more important than anything, including one’s family [2].

2.  Acts of Revenge
After consulting a mullah, who advised him to put his faith in the Koran, Zar Mohammad does that and, as a result, decides what he is going to do: kill the four men who have humiliated him.  As he tells his father-in-law, he will kill them
“not for the money, but because they took away my honor. Everyone mocks me.”
The father-in-law approves of the plan and adds further that a true tangsir should never die of old age, but in battle.

Zar Mohammad then digs up his old rifle that he had used 20 years earlier to support the vain attempt of a famous tangsir, Rais Ali Delvari, to resist a British invasion of Tangestan in 1915 [2]. This rifle, along with a trusty hatchet, will be Zar Mohammad’s weapons of war against his tormentors. 

His wife is horrified by her husband’s intentions, but she offers her full support.  Her main concern is the almost certain upcoming death of her husband.  As she tells him, if her two children were to die, she could accept it, because she could always get another child.  But, she says, he is irreplaceable for her.  (Such an attitude strikes me as more likely coming from the male authors than from a woman, at least the kinds women that I know.)

Anyway, Zar Mohammad goes to Abdoul Karim’s stall in the bazaar, sticks his rifle barrel in the man’s chest, and shoots him dead. He then goes to Sheikh Torab’s quarters and points his gun into that man’s chest, too, which again elicits terror and whimpering begging for mercy from his victim.  Zar Mohammad clearly relishes humiliating the man, as he watches with satisfaction while the terrified cleric prostrates himself and kisses Zar Mohammad’s feet.

But that’s only for a few seconds, as Zar Mohammad then blows the sheikh away with a rifle shot. Finally, Zar Mohammad goes to the lawyer Ali’s quarters and carries out another point-blank assassination on him in the same fashion as the others. 

Mounted police finally arrive, firing randomly into a crowd that has gathered to follow Zar Mohammad’s actions.  In the ensuing  melee Zar Mohammad shoots and hacks his way out to temporary safety – a hiding place behind the counter of a corner food shop.

3.  Growing Support
After Zar Mohammad’s murderous mayhem, one might think that the local populace would be horrified, but quite the opposite reaction is observed.. People seem to regard him as a hero and begin chanting his praise, calling him “Shir Mohammad”, which means “Mohammad the Lion”.
The breadth of Zar Mohammad’s appeal is illustrated in this section of the film by showing the support he gets from the Armenian owner of the shop where Zar Mohammad is hiding.  The Armenian sells alcohol at his shop and presumably represents a wider and more nonpartisan social view. Even some of the police support the killer.  A police lieutenant confesses to Zar Mohammad’s wife that he disobeyed orders from his captain so that he could give the killer enough leeway to complete his killing spree.

4.  The Final Murder
The fourth target, Rajab, is now hiding in the home of Seyyed, a descendent of the Prophet and therefore a presumed holy man.  Zar Mohammad gains entry to Seyyed’s home and drags the whimpering Rajab out onto the street, where a supportive crowd is waiting for Zar Mohammad to finish the job.  After shouting out to the crowd that they should never allow themselves to be cheated by usurers, Zar Mohammad points his rifle into Rajab’s chest and finishes him off like all the others.

The mounted police arrive, and begin shooting indiscriminately.  The crowd angrily resists in  support of Zar Mohammad.  What started out as an individual dispute has now become a full-scale insurrection.  In the resulting chaos, Zar Mohammad manages to jump into the sea and begins swimming away as the film ends.

Tangsir does have some good production values, with fine acting from Behrouz Vossoughi, in the role of Zar Mohammad, as well as excellent cinematography on the part of Nemat Haghighi and good music from Loris Tjeknavorian.  On the other hand the acting performances of the four doomed swindlers are so exaggerated and artificial in their attempts to portray contemptible characters that they wind up being ludicrous. 

However, Tangsir has more fundamental problems than with any specifics of the technical production.  The film’s overall message is both wrongheaded and reprehensible. It pretends to extol the virtues of a man fighting for the rights of the people.  But the hate-filled protagonist in this story is not so noble as that.  He merely feels personally cheated on his investment and therefore humiliated. So he decides to murder those who made him lose face.  The film’s message purports to applaud his actions, as if he represents a firm and virtuous path towards social justice.  Nonsense.  Zar Mohammad’s murderous rampage is only undertaken to support his own pride, not social welfare.  He even admits to this in the film.  And the tortuous and torturous way he carries out his vengeful acts reflects a man who revels in punishment and thinks it should include torture [3]. If a legal system is corrupt and does not offer a reasonable path towards remedying injustice, then joint, cooperative social action is required, not self-justified murder.

We need films that send just the opposite message, those that promote love and compassion. Zar Mohammad and his wife had already possessed the greatest of all treasures – love for each other.  And the man threw it all away because he had lost money and therefore felt so ashamed that he felt he had to kill to restore his honor. This is the kind of demented mindset that promotes honor killings. His violent, selfish path is not something that the general populace should admire and is not a model for social justice.

  1. When Tangsir was released to English-speaking areas, its English language title was “Tight Spot”, an apparent reference the Farsi word “tang”, which means “tight”.
  2. Laleh Khalili, “Tangsir”, The Gamming, (18 October 2014).
  3. Regrettably, there are prominent political figures today with the same attitudes.

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