“Company Limited” - Satyajit Ray (1971)

Satyajit Ray’s Company Limited (Seemabaddha, 1971) was the second installment of his so-called Calcutta Trilogy, which also included The Adversary (Pratidwandi, (1970) and The Middleman (Jana Aranya, 1976).  Although the three films were not made consecutively and the stories are not connected, they do each concern a young man from a modest middle-class background trying to make something of himself in the turbulent world of the big city. An additional commonality in the trilogy is that two of the films, Company Limited and The Middleman, were based on recently published novellas by Mani Shankar Mukherjee (generally known as “Shankar”) in the collection Swarga Martya Patal

To a certain extent the issues covered in the Calcutta Trilogy are universal.  Young university graduates everywhere are faced with the task of finding a job out there in the dog-eat-dog world that is vastly different from the principled world of academia.  And that means adapting oneself to new, unforseen circumstances and convincing employment superiors of one’s capabilities.  But in Calcutta (Kolkata) in the 1960s the difficulties were much greater.  The economy there was struggling with the intense and disruptive globalization that had come with independence.  The city’s infrastructure was in decay.  And Bengal was hit with a large influx of refugees from East Pakistan  (now Bangladesh).  On top of that, Calcutta was beset with the violent rampages of the Naxalite Maoist movement that was threatening the civil order.  But although the city seemed to be teetering on the edge of serious decline, young people from the provinces were still drawn to Calcutta because it offered opportunities.  And because of these circumstances, there was a vast number of literate, educated people who were unemployed and struggling, as depicted in The Adversary and The Middleman.

However, the narrative environment of “Company Limited” is a bit different from the other two features in the trilogy. In The Adversary and The Middleman, the recently graduated protagonist was just trying to land a job, any job, while in The Company the protagonist already has a good job, but is trying to move up the corporate ladder.  In each case, though, the young man is faced with choices inside a largely corrupt modern urban environment that conflict with the principles and values that he has been taught and doesn’t want to abandon. 

The story of Company Limited moves through four phases, the first of which provides the background concerning the film’s protagonist, Shyamalendu (“Shyamal”) Chatterjee (played by Barun Chanda).

1.  Shyamal’s World
In the beginning, there is a documentary presentation formally narrated by Shyamal that describes how he rose to his present position.  He grew up in Patna and after graduation was initially a schoolteacher like his father.  But he had more acquisitive ambitions and soon found a job ten years ago with the Hindustan Peters Company, a British-founded limited-liability company that manufactures lamps and fans. He rose up quickly in the company and was relocated seven years ago to the main branch in Calcutta, where he is now the sales manager of the company’s fan division.  He is now living along with his wife Dolan (Paromita Chowdhury) in an opulent apartment provided by the company.  Their seven-year-old son is off studying at an exclusive boarding school in Darjeeling.  Clearly he is making it.

There is now a new opportunity for Shyamal, though.  The company’s marketing director, who sits on the company’s board of directors, has been stricken with cancer, and the two candidates for his replacement are Shyamal and the lamp division’s sales manager, Ranadeb Sanyal. 

As we watch Shyamal attending to his routine business activities, we see that he is efficient, super-confidant, and smilingly arrogant towards his underlings.  This part of the film, which takes up almost half an hour is mildly tedious, but it does present Shyamal’s setting.

2.  Tutul Arrives
Eventually Shyamal’s wife Dolan announces that her younger sister, Sudarshana (known as “Tutul” and played by Sharmila Tagore), whom Shyamal hasn’t seen for seven years, is coming to visit them for a fortnight.  Upon arrival, Dolan and Tutul chat in the bedroom, and it is clear that while Dolan just aspires to be a wealthy housewife, Tutul, who is a recent college graduate, seems more thoughtful about life’s goals. Dolan breathlessly tells Tutul that if Shyamal does get appointed to the company directorship, his salary will be 150 times what his starting salary was.  This is what matters to her.

Immediately Shyamal and Dolan show Tutul around their upscale world, and she is duly impressed with her brother-in-law and his lifestyle.  They take her to their exclusive club and then to the racetrack, where Shyamal introduces Tutul to the excitement of horse races.  This is one  the film’s metaphors, because while a horse race is ultimately meaningless, people can make investments and get excited about which horse wins (as Tutul momentarily does).  So, too, Shyamal’s career is just another horse race.

That night Shyamal and Dolan host a cocktail party, where their business associates come and argue cynically about Calcutta’s rebellious youth.  It is interrupted by a visit from Shyamal’s humble parents, whose provincial simplicity contrasts with the supposed sophistication of the nouveau riche party attendees.  The parents are quickly shepherded into the bedroom so as not to make the other guests uncomfortable.

The next morning Tutul and Shyamal awaken early and chat.  Since Tutul doesn’t have a watch, Shyamal gives his own watch to her and tells her to return it to him when she returns to Patna.

Tutul is curious about the racy, alcohol-fueled socializing of Shyamal’s business circles, and she is cautiously impressed that Shyamal does not drink alcohol heavily. Shyamal explains to her that he does do some drinking, and it is necessary for him to go through some social rigamarole in order to “play the game” and get ahead.  Overall, though, Tutul expresses satisfaction that Shyamal is not very different from the serious, idealistic young man he was back in Patna. 

In fact although Shyamal is married and Tutul has a boyfriend back in Patna, there is clearly a growing but unspoken affection between the two.  They seem implicitly to see the potential for mutual sympathetic feelings for each other that goes beyond the feelings between Shyamal and Dolan.  The expressive subtlety of the tacit feelings between Shyamal and Tutul is one of the strong points of the film.

3.  A Crisis at the Company
At his office the next day, Shyamal is horrified to learn that the 10,000 Peters’s fans they are about to ship the next week to Iraq are defective.  To repair the fans would take three weeks, and holding up the shipment would invoke penalty clauses and a huge loss of face for the company and, in particular, for Shyamal.

Desiring to retain Tutul’s respect for him, Shyamal explains to her (but not to his wife) his problem.  The only thing that could legally save him would be an “act of God”, like an earthquake, he tells her.  Tutul, still impressed with his general mastery of things, says light-heartedly that he can do anything – why doesn’t he manufacture some disturbance at the fan factory? But Shyamal only looks askance at her, as if to say, “what do you take me for?”  Nevertheless, this exchange gets Shyamal thinking.

4.  Crisis Averted
Unbeknownst to others, including Tutul and Dolan, Shyamal quickly and confidentially contacts his colleague, company personnel officer Harihar Talukdar (Haradhan Bannerjee), to create some disturbance in the factory.  After Shyamal gets approval from the Managing Director (i.e. CEO) Mr. Pheris (who has been told about the defective fans), Talukdar goes ahead with their secret plan. A labor disturbance is created; a strike is announced; a bomb is detonated in the factory that seriously injures a night watchman; and finally a factory lockout is declared.  They now have a phoney, but legal, excuse for delaying shipment of the defective fans.  The crisis has been averted.

Now more relaxed, Shyamal, Dolan, and Tutul go to a nightclub, where Shyamal tells his companions, in tones that express admiration, that the belly dancers at the club make four times his starting salary at Peters.  Then  they run into Shyamal’s colleague also visiting the club, who mentions the factory lockout.  Tutul is now disturbed to realize that Shyamal has concocted the dirty lockout scheme to save his own neck.  The intercut shots of Tutul’s silent, frowning consternation and the club’s belly dancer, who is essentially selling her own body for money, provide a telling visual metaphor. This is apparently the way Shyamal operates.

A couple of days later managing director Pheris rewards Shyamal by having him appointed to the coveted directorship.  Shyamal goes home to celebrate, but the building’s elevator is not working and he has to walk all the way up to his seventh-floor apartment, leaving him exhausted  – again, another visual metaphor for his unceasing efforts to climb the corporate ladder.  When he sees Tutul, she silently hands him back the watch he had given her, indicating that she is leaving for her home.  Shyamal agonizingly realizes that she has lost all respect for him and is cutting herself off.


Company Limited’s production involved Satyajir Ray’s usual team.  Ray provided the direction, the script, and the music.  The film editing was again performed by Dulal Dutta.  And Soumendu Roy was the cinematographer.  Nevertheless, the cinematography and overall pacing seemed a little different from other Ray films.  Again there was heavy use of separated medium-closeups for conversations, but the shots were shorter and often involved quick cutaways.  The framing and camera movements were generally more agitated, giving the film a nervous feel.  I don’t know how much of this agitation came from Soumendu Roy, but I have generally preferred the camera work in Ray’s early films that were photographed by Subrata Mitra, whose last film with Ray was Nayak (1966). 

Films about the corporate “rat race” have often been popular – perhaps the most notable being Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960).  They usually involve the conflict between acting on behalf of one’s utilitarian (economic) interests and doing what is morally right.  The only goals in the economic world are to make money and to be a boss.  Company Limited is situated in that space, too.  However, in order for a film like this to be most effective, the viewer needs to fully empathize with the protagonist’s struggles, and this is where Company Limited is limited. Shyamal seems to be a bit too cocky and unreflective – much more so than the respective protagonists in The Adversary and The Middleman. And the potential romantic relationship between Shyamal and the beautiful Tutul, while delicately played, may be too slight to carry the needed emotional weight.  Their “brief encounter” never really materializes, even as a fantasy.
★★★

Ali Rafie

Films of Ali Rafie:

Shirin Neshat

Films of Shirin Neshat:

Hamid Nematollah

Films of Hamid Nematollah:
  •  Boutique (Butik) - Hamid Nematollah (2003)

“The Silence” - Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1998)

Writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s shifting artistic intentions have always attracted scrutiny. The former teenage Islamist militant began making films in his twenties, shortly after his release from prison during the 1979 Iranian revolution.  These initial films were “thinly disguised religious proselytizing” [1]. In a few years, though, he shifted his attention to general social issues, and later, in the 1990s, he turned to more poetic and Sufi-inspired themes. (However, some critics, e.g. [2], see this later turn as only a cover to avoid state censorship and that Makhmbalbaf continued to be primarily concerned with general social issues.)  So Makhmalbaf’s expressive turning reflected his withdrawal from his initial passionate embrace of rigid Islamist dogma and movement towards his eventual support of the more liberal Iranian Green Movement in 2009.  And of course that makes him fascinating to many observers.  But it wasn’t just a thematic shifting, there was a stylistic shifting, too.  By the time he made Gabbeh (1996) and The Silence (Sokout, 1998), Makhmalbaf was so imbued with Sufic evocations that he had “largely abandoned traditional narrative” [3].  This is what makes The Silence, in particular, a unique and somewhat maddening work [4].  With Makhmalbaf’s abandonment of traditional cinematic narrative, the viewer is left with the challenge of weaving together and making sense of what is presented on screen.

The narrative material in the film, such as it is, is set in Tajikistan and concerns an impoverished 10-year-old boy who is blind.  The boy, Khorshid (played by Tahmineh Normatova), lives alone with his mother (Goibibi Ziadolahyeva), since his father abandoned the family some time earlier.  Their only source of income is Khorshid’s job at a local musical instrument shop and factory where he tunes stringed instruments. 

Equally important in the story is the orphan Nadereh (Nadereh Abdelahyeva), who is a couple of years older than Khorshid and who is looked after by the music shop’s owner.  Because of Khorshid’s blindness, Nadereh must escort Khorshid back and forth every day from the bus terminus to the shop.  She also assists Khorshid with his work, and the two of them are good friends.

Much of what transpires is shown in little vignettes involving Khorshid and Nadereh, and this is presented from their perspectives by showing them in tight closeups or tracking shots in medium closeup.  Since Khorshid is blind, his encounter with the world is through sounds, and the film’s sound track is full of crisp and precise sounds from the world around the two of them. The resulting cinematic perspective is what gives the film an interior feeling that may suggest Sufic resonance with the unfathomably rich world that is always around us, and it is one of the film’s primary virtues.  Incidentally, The Silence was the first Makhmalbaf film that included production credits for all his family members who went on to direct their own films – his wife, Marzieh Meshkini; and his two daughters, Samira Makhmalbaf and Hana Makhmalbaf.

At the beginning of the film, Khorshid’s mother tells him that their landlord is about to evict them if they don’t pay their overdue rent, and they need an advance on Khorshid’s meager salary.  But Khorshid has a problem – his acute sense of hearing leads to him becoming entranced by ambient sounds and music.  In fact we soon learn that his hearing is so sharp that can distinguish between two types of bees – those that gather nectar from flowers and those that land on dung – simply by the subtle differences in their buzzing noises.  His main difficulty is that he becomes attracted by enticing sounds and wanders off in their direction by “following his ears”.  This causes him to be late for work.   So Nadereh gives him some cotton to put in his ears when he rides the bus in order that he not get distracted by enchanting sounds along the way.

Among the vignettes that I liked are the following:
  • Early on in the story Nadereh is guiding Khorshid to work and leads him through the crowded bazaar.  Khorshid becomes distracted by the music from a man carrying a cassette player and follows him without Nadereh noticing.  When Nadereh looks around and notices that Khorshid is missing, her task of finding the boy in the huge, crowded bazaar appears to be hopeless.  But she decides to imitate Khorshid by closing her eyes and following her own ears, heading in the direction of whatever enticing music she hears.  Eventually she finds Khorshid this way.
     
  • On one occasion in the music shop, Nadereh listens to the sound of Khorshid strumming on a tar instrument and begins dancing to the music.  She has decorated her fingernails with flower petals, and she shows them off while she dances.
     
  • Sometimes Khorshid walks through a metalworks section of the bazaar, and he comes to love the sound of the craftsmen hammering on copper kettles and farm tools.  He is particularly enthralled by the rhythmic sound of “ba-ba-ba-BAM”, which he hears everywhere – even when someone knocks on the door.  So he asks the artisans to hammer according to that rhythm, which they obligingly do for him.  (On another occasion Khorshid also tells Nadereh about his fascination with the “ba-ba-ba-BAM” rhythm.)
     
  • One time Nadereh takes Khorshid to the river that flows by their town and tells him about her mirror and how it reflects images.  Khorshid is given the mirror to hold, but he drops it, and it breaks into two pieces.  In one piece we can see the reflection of Nadereh’s face, and in the other piece we see Khorshid’s face.
Of course when Khorshid is riding on he bus, he cannot always resist the temptation to remove his cotton earplugs when he suspects music is being played.  One time he does this when a particularly adept tar-playing gypsy is riding on the bus, and Khorshid can’t help following the musician when he gets off the bus.  After some effort, Khorshid finds the gypsy, who takes Khorshid to his clan’s camp by the riverside.   Khorshid asks the gypsy for some money that he can give to his landlord, but the gypsy tells him he has no money.  All the gypsy he can do is play music for the landlord, and, after all, he says, “everyone likes music”.

The end of the movie does not seem to have a resolution in any conventional sense.  The landlord has evidently evicted Khorshid’s mother from their home, and Khorshid has been fired from his job.  At the very end, Khorshid says he is going far away and tells the gypsy musicians to play the “horses gallop” music.  Then he runs off into the metalworks bazaar and begins orchestrating all the artisans there to begin beating in unison to his “ba-ba-ba-BAM” instructions.  As he does so, he throws off his shirt, and a mysterious heavenly light beams down on him from above that illuminates Khorshid’s orchestral conducting.  The music from the hammering metalworkers morphs into a folk-instrumental version of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” (the opening rhythm of which is “ba-ba-ba-BAM”) as the film ends.

Even though there does not seem to be a narrative progression in the film, there are some themes worth mentioning that relate to Sufism – mirrors, music, and femininity.
  • Mirrors.  The mirror is an important symbol and metaphor in Sufi poetry [5].  In particular, Makhmalbaf once remarked that Rumi said “truth is a mirror in the hand of God that has been broken into pieces, and everyone picks up one piece and says I’ve got the whole truth, but the whole truth is in the mirror” [6].  This is metaphorically suggested when Khorshid and Nadereh each pick up the broken mirror fragment that reflects their own image.  Also, at the end of the film after Khorshid’s mother has been evicted from their home, she is seen being rowed across the river with her prized possession: a large wall mirror, which is shown reflecting the sun’s image.
  • Music.  There are some elements concerning music in this film that come directly from Makhmalbaf’s own experiences.  When he was a child, his religiously conservative grandmother would “make him put his fingers in his ears to avoid hearing the 'evil' music in the streets” [7]. In addition his earliest recollection of Western music was of the first four notes (“ba-ba-ba-BAM”) of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” [8]. So perhaps Makhmalbaf associated Beethoven’s famous work with the universality of music – the idea that music transcends the particulars of life’s circumstances and can help elevate one to a holy resonance. 

    The film has another direct reference to Rumi in this connection.  It is said that Rumi was walking in the goldsmiths’ bazaar one day, and he became so entranced by their rhythmic hammer beating that he began whirling for several hours right there in the bazaar [9]. So Khorshid’s orchestration of the metalsmiths’ hammering alludes to this parable.
  • Femininity. The image of femininity is pervasive in the film, and in fact it is a common feature in many of Makhmalbaf’s films.  This portrayal of femininity has nothing to do with sensuality, but instead evokes something more ethereal and innocent. Khorshid meets many young (and innocent) girls at the food market selling bread and fruit.  There are also many very feminine young women traveling by themselves on the bus when he goes to work.  None of these women are hidden behind hijabs, and indeed Nadereh does not even wear a head scarf (although at one point she is wary of a man she sees on the street bullying girls to don head scarves).  In fact Nadereh’s innocent femininity is a key visual motif in the film, and a considerable amount of screen time is dedicated to displaying it.

    But it is not just Nadereh’s femininity that is highlighted.  The principal role of Khorshid is played by Tahmineh Normatova, who is actually a girl!  So all the main players in the film are ultimately of this almost mystical feminine sublimity.
Thus we can say that The Silence is full of Sufi reverie, from its sonorous intonations to its vivid imagery.  But the lack of a narrative flow is a serious deficiency.  It is not enough just to provide a set of arresting images and ask the viewer to put together his or her own narrative (or even artistic construction) out of them. 

Makhmalbaf was evidently influenced and inspired by the Russian Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov.  Indeed Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh appears to be closely modeled after Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969) [10].  And by comparing those two films, one can see the great difference between Parajanov’s mystical artistry and Makhmalbaf’s haphazard and more schematic constructions.  Here in The Silence, too, one feels there are meaningless lapses that seem to be only distractions and disrupt the flow.  Even so, the film does have its moments, especially just watching Nadereh and Khorshid making their way through and connecting with the world around them.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Neil Macfarquhar, “An Unlikely Auteur From Iran”, The New York Times, (8 June  1997).  
  2. Dennis Grunes, “THE SILENCE (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1998)”, Dennis Grunes, (23 February 2007).  
  3. Neil Macfarquhar, op. cit.
  4. Ian Johnston, “The Silence”, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, (6 February 2006).   
  5. John Renard, Historical Dictionary of Sufism, Scarecrow Press, (2006), p. 158.
  6. Lloyd Ridgeon, “Listening for an ’Authentic’ Iran: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Film, ‘The Silence’ (Sokut)”, Iranian Intellectuals: 1997-2007, (Lloyd Ridgeon, ed.), Routledge (2013), p. 148.
  7. Scott Tobias, “The Silence”, The Onion A. V. Club, (29 March 2002).   
  8. Ibid.
  9. Lloyd Ridgeon, op. cit., p. 139.
  10. James Steffen, The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, University of Wisconsin Press, (2013), p. 250.

Granaz Moussavi

Films of Granaz Moussavi:

Ali Khazai-far

Films of Ali Khazai-far:

Iraj Karimi

Films of Iraj Karimi:
  • Going By (Az Kenar-e Ham Migozarim) - Iraj Karimi (2001)

"Dash Akol" - Masoud Kimiai (1971)

Iranian writer-director Masoud Kimiai has had a productive and continually active fifty-year career, but his most prominent and well-received work came relatively early on.  One of those early successes was Dash Akol (1971), which concerns love, honor, and survival among street toughs in the Iranian urban environment of an earlier period.  It is based on the short story “Dash Akol” (1932) [1,2] by Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951), who is one of my favorite writers. 

Now considered one of the major Iranian literary figures of the 20th century, Hedayat spent his early adulthood studying European literature, and during his tragically shortened literary career he introduced a number of Western motifs and perspectives into Iranian settings. As a result, his writing covered a range of styles, and some of his most famous works, besides “Dash Akol”, include  "The Benefits of Vegetarianism” (1927), “Three Drops of Blood” (1932), The Blind Owl (1937), "Don Juan of Karaj" (1942), and “The Dark Room” (1942) [3,4].  To me, though, Hedayat’s very best work has an unforgettably macabre flavor, and he is essentially the Edgar Allen Poe (who was in fact one of Hedayat’s models) of Iranian fiction.  His principal characters are often beset with extreme loneliness and inexpressible existential fears, including fears of these same characters’ own self-destructive impulses.  In these Hedayat stories, the world itself is frequently ominous and unknowably misshapen. 

So one of the virtues of a Hedayat story is the eerie mood that the story evokes.  And it is a credit to Kimiai that he managed to conjure of Hedayat’s prose-induced mood of “Dash Akol” with his cinematic presentation of the story.  This was accomplished partly by means of many shadow-laden scenes in deep focus.  In addition, the emphatic and melodramatic music of Esfandiar Monfaredzadeh, the style of which is not normally to my taste, is effective here in sustaining the brooding and expressionistic mood that overhangs the story.

The world in which the story “Dash Akol” is set concerns the almost lawless and anarchic urban environments of an earlier day.  In such settings in 19th century Iran (Qajar period), there arose the notion of the luti, who was essentially a street thug and who sought to be the “boss” of his neighborhood. A luti was an uneducated lower-class hooligan who heavily drank alcohol, engaged in promiscuous and exploitative sex, and generally bullied anyone in the neighborhood who didn’t bow down to his belligerent dominance. Respect and fearful obsequiousness was what the luti constantly demanded from all others of his class.

During the same Qajar period there emerged also the countervailing notion of the lutigar, which was something of a chivalrous knight dedicated to helping the poor and protecting the weak from exploitation. Patrolling the neighborhood with his identifying tassel and his sheathed sword, the lutigar would be always ready to come to come to the aid of oppressed  or disadvantaged people.  Those who were lutigar (aka javanmardi or fotvvat) followed principles of generosity and courageous self-sacrifice and were considered to be pahlavan (heroes) in their neighborhoods.  (Note that the notions of luti and lutigar have a much older ancestry, but the present-day understandings of these terms seem to have crystallized in the 19th century [5,6,7]).  Of course the boundaries between a lutigar and ordinary lutis may not always be clear.  But in Dash Akol, it is clearly the case that Dash Akol is an honorable  lutigar, while his antagonist, Kaka Rostam, is just a despicable luti.

Masoud Kimiai’s script for Dash Akol follows Hedayat’s story pretty closely, but Kimiai did introduce some changes that I think were enhancements to the overall narrative and which I will identify below.  The story is somewhat episodic but passes through three main sections.

1.  Dash Akol, the most honorable man in Shiraz
The opening sequences show the street thug Kaka Rostam (played by Bahman Mofid) in a teahouse and boastfully claiming to be the boss of Shiraz.   While Kaka is bullying a serving boy, Dash Akol (Behrouz Vossoughi) arrives carrying his signature caged parrot and challenges Kaka.  They immediately get into a sword fight that results in Dash Akol getting the upper hand.  But rather than killing Kaka, Dash Akol lets him go with a humiliating warning.  This of course is a major loss of face for Kaka.

Then a messenger arrives summoning Dash Akol to the lavish residence of Hadji Samad, a respected and reverent man who is now on his deathbed.  Saying there is noone more honorable than Dash Akol, Samad announces that Dash Akol is to be the executor of his estate.  Dash Akol doesn’t want to take on the burden of such a task, but his honor forces him to accept the responsibility.

At Hadji Samad’s funeral, one of the many grieving women in full, face-covering chadors almost faints; and Dash Akol is summoned to sprinkle some water on her face to revive her. When her facial veil is lifted for a moment, Dash Akol looks into her eyes and is stunned by her beauty.  This young woman, Marjan (Mary Apick), we later learn, is Hadji Samad’s 14-year-old daughter.  When she walks away, Dash Akol picks up the black hand scarf she had dropped and puts it in his pocket.

2.  The Estate Executor
Dash Akol assumes the role of the estate executor, but he becomes depressed because he has fallen madly in love with Marjan.  He knows that he is more than twenty years older than the girl and below her class.  In addition, he feels that his many facial scars from past blade fights make him too ugly to win a pretty girl’s love.

The scene now shifts to a wine house that features musicians and a beautiful dancer, Aghdass (Shahrzad).  A thuggish patron starts bullying Aghdass, but Dash Akol, who is also there, chases the thug away. Aghdass clearly likes Dash Akol and dances for him, but Dash Akol is too drunk and sorrowful to respond to her, even spurning her invitation to come to her room.  She tells him that “when a man is sorrowful, he is an ocean of sadness.”

Kimiai’s script has two significant changes to Hedayat’s story here. The dancing girl, Aghdass, is not in Hedayat’s original story, but including her has the effect of adding substance and contrast to the romantic theme. In the original story Dash Akol has romantic dreams of Marjan.  That element has been omitted in the film and replaced by the more upfront presentation of two contrasting forms of femininity. Mary Apick, an Armenian Iranian actress with refined beauty who plays Marjan, has an almost ethereal image to her. Shahrzad, who plays Aghdass, is more physical and earthy. Kimiai captures this by focussing on the sensual movements of Shahrzad’s hands and feet as she dances. In particular, there is something inexpressibly visceral about the image of human feet, and here it serves to connect the viewer with Aghdass.

Another change that Kimiai made concerns the wine house proprietor, Isaac.   In Hedayat’s story he is sneeringly portrayed as a slimy Jew, reflecting Hedayat’s apparently prejudicial tendency to look down on any Semitic influences on pure Persian culture.  In the film, though, Isaac is portrayed as a sympathetic and helpful person.

The rest of this sequence shows Dash Akol diligently attending to the estate he is managing.  His honorable reserve prevents him from interacting with his beloved Marjan.  But there is one atmospheric shot showing him on one of Shiraz’s rare snowy days looking down from an upper-level window on Marjan in the estate compound courtyard as she marvels at the snow.  To drown his sorrows over Marjan, Dash Akol spends his time drinking araq (a high-proof alcoholic liquor) and pouring out his broken heart to his parrot.

In the original story, seven years are said to pass while Dash Akol spends his time managing the estate and brooding over his impossible love.  In the film, this passage of time is not so evident, but it is clear that Dash Akol’s withdrawal from the street culture has emboldened his enemy Kaka to boastfully claim that Dash Akol is chicken and has become a mere servant in the Hadji Samad compound.

3.   Marjan’s Wedding
Eventually Marjan’s mother receives a marriage proposal for her daughter’s hand from a handsome young man of a prosperous family.  Dash Akol feels honor-bound to accept the proposal when Marjan’s mother consults with him. In Hedayat’s story the marriage proposal comes from a man said to be older and uglier than Dash Akol, but Kimiai’s change here in the story also seems appropriate in terms of romantic tragedy.

Rather than attend the wedding, the depressed Dash Akol goes to the wine house and gets drunk. Aghdass approaches him and finally declares her passionate love for him.  She drags the inebriated Dash Akol to her room, and they spend the night making love.  Their scenes of lovemaking are intercut with Marjan and her new husband going to bed on their wedding night.

That night on the way home the still drunk Dash Akol runs into Kaka and his gangsters, who proceed to rough up the sorrowful Dash Akol.  Finally Dash Akol challenges Kaka to a final battle to be held in front of everyone at the city square.  Dash Akol then goes home to prepare for the sword fight, working out at the local zurkhane (house of strength).  The lonely man also speaks to his only confidante, his parrot, rhetorically saying to it that is his love for her that has killed him.

The battle in the city square finally takes place, and the epic struggle in the shadows of various arcades occupies more than five minutes of screen time.   Dash Akol finally gets the advantage, but as a man of honor, he throws down his sword and lets Kaka go.  He turns his back on his adversary, telling him, “I told you I never kill dogs.”  Kaka picks up his sword and fatally stabs Dash Akol, who with his last remaining strength strangles Kaka.

On his deathbed later, Dash Akol tells Isaac to give his only possession, his parrot, to Marjan.  The next day the parrot is delivered to Marjan, and the film depicts exactly the event that is recounted by Hedayat’s final words in the story [1]:
That afternoon Marjan put the cage in front of her and stared at the bird's multi-colored wings, hooked beak and round tired eyes. Suddenly the parrot, in a voice that echoed Dash Akol's, said, "Marjan... Marjan... you've killed me. Whom can I tell? Marjan, your love has killed me."
Tears ran down Marjan's cheeks.

There are some rough edges to this film production.  In particular some of the rapid-fire, nearly subliminal, editorial cuts don’t work and are only distracting.  Also, some of the melodramatic histrionics go too far.  But overall, Kimiai’s moody mise-en-scene creates a somber atmosphere that is surprisingly effective. 

Ultimately, Dash Akol knew that he could have asked for Marjan’s hand and that both the girl and her mother would have accepted.  But he felt that such an act would have been a betrayal of his honorable commitment to Hadji Samad.  To take advantage of his position as Hadji Samad’s estate executor would have been a failure to live up to his standards of a lutigar.  This is not just a matter of losing face; it represented a sincere commitment to live up to a high standard. 

In this sense Dash Akol’s life existed on two levels.  On one level was an abstract plane where the idealistic principles of lutigari and Marjan’s heavenly eyes resided.  On a lower level was the plane of real, embodied engagement.  It was on this lower level that Dash Akol performed his heroic deeds and could have had a lasting love with Aghdass.  You cannot really live on that upper level; you can only refer to it as a beacon to guide you. Dash Akol was a good man, but he suffered, because he was unable to fully bridge the gap between these two levels. This led to the grim outcome. 

The film’s closing statement is Sadegh Hedayat’s gloomy pronouncement on man’s perpetual existential loneliness:
 “Life has many problems that you may have to suffer all by yourself.”
★★★½ 
 
Notes:
  1. Sadeqh Hedayat, “Dash Akol” (Kimberley A. Brown, trans), Bashiri Working Papers on Central Asia and Iran (Iraj Bashiri), (1999).
  2. Sohila Sarem, “DĀŠ ĀKOL”, Encyclopedia Iranica, (30 August 2011).       
  3. English translations of many of these works can be found at
  4. For D. P. Costello’s English translation of The Blind Owl, try here.
  5. Anthony Shay, “A Rainbow of Iranian Masculinities: Raqqas, a Type of Iranian Male Image”, Claremont Colleges Scholarship @ Claremont, (1 January 2017).   
  6. Willem Floor, “LUTI”, Encyclopedia Iranica, (15 March 2010).     
  7. Arley Loewen, “KĀKAGI”, Encyclopedia Iranica, (19 April 2012). 

Abolfazl Jalili

Films of Abolfazl Jalili:

Ebrahim Hatamikia

Films of Ebrahim Hatamikia:
  •  Low Heights (Ertefae Past) - Ebrahim Hatamikia (2002)

Muhammad Bozorgnia

Films of Muhammad Bozorgnia:

Jerome Robbins

Films of Jerome Robbins:

Robert Wise

Films of Robert Wise:

Gunther von Fritsch

Films of Gunther von Fritsch:

“West Side Story” - Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (1961)

West Side Story, a musical stage play that recast William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet into a contemporary setting, was a big hit when it opened on Broadway in 1957.  The film adaptation of the musical released in 1961 was an even bigger hit, winning 10 US Academy Awards (Oscars), including the award for Best Picture, and it remains an enduring classic for several reasons.  Made during the “Golden Age” of American stage musicals, it differed from other such works in this era by not being the creation of just one or two auteurs, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein [1], but instead being the creative concoction of a larger group.  In fact the film version of West Side Story could be said to be the synergistic concoction of six major creators:
  • William Shakespeare, author of Romeo and Juliet
  • Arthur Laurents, author of the book (script) for West Side Story
  • Leonard Bernstein, composer of the music for West Side Story
  • Stephen Sondheim, composer of the lyrics for Bernstein’s music
  • Jerome Robbins, choreographer and co-director of the film (he was the sole director of the stage musical)
  • Robert Wise, co-director of the film    
Somehow they combined to create a masterpiece that excels on many levels – story, music, and choreography. 

With respect to the music, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim were an ideal combination.  Bernstein, who was also the conductor and musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, was a talented composer across many musical genres, including symphonic and orchestral pieces.  His music in this film is more sophisticated than the usual stage-musical fare, but it still has many memorably tuneful elements [2].  Sondheim’s lyrics are often delightfully clever, and they add emphasis to the film’s narrative themes. Particularly memorable are Sondheim’s rhythmic lyrics to the songs “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”.  Overall, the music is so constantly present that the film almost feels like a sung-through musical.  Throughout the film we are continually in the thrall of that music.

Closely accompanying the music is Jerome Robbins’s choreography, which goes much further than most of the musical films I have seen.  Often the dancing pieces in a musical represent reflective interludes that are essentially timeouts from the main story.  Here, however, the dancing permeates the narrative and is, like the music, almost perpetually present. In addition the coordinated finger-snapping behavior of the gang members becomes a constant metaphor for toughness, attitude, and gang solidarity. 

Robbins was apparently a perfectionist, and his demanding dance numbers required so many retakes that the production began to run beyond its shooting schedule and way over budget.  In fact when I watch some of the dance numbers, I feel like the players had not only to be precision ensemble dancers but also highly athletic acrobats, as well.  So the producers fired Robbins before shooting was complete, and the remaining dance scenes had to be supervised by Robbins’s assistants.  Nevertheless, Robbins’s choreography is one of the film’s key virtues.  It has, as I said, a different flavor than most stage-musical dancing, and it so permeates the film as almost to give it a surreal, expressionistic feeling. 

The narrative storyline is also innovative.  West Side Story’s narrative foundation is Romeo and Juliet, probably the most famous romantic tragedy in English.  In that Shakespeare play, two young people from extended families that are at war with each other, fall madly in love.  The opposition of their two families, however, leads to the tragic deaths of the two innocent lovers. But Arthur Laurents, in collaboration with Bernstein, Sondheim, and Robbins, resituated the Romeo and Juliet story into a contemporary setting associated with a major social issue in 1950s America – the emergence of urban juvenile delinquency and the rise of street gangs.

Urban street gangs in one form or another appear all across the globe, particularly in anarchic or relatively open societies.   But in the US, there seem to be many more gangs than in similarly advanced countries around the world.  It is estimated that there are now more than 30,000 gangs and more than a million gang members in the US [3].  This phenomenon may be partly due to the large number of foreign ethnic groups that have migrated to the US and also the isolation felt by some communities due to racial and ethnic prejudice in the United States.  The clash of rival street gangs was particularly apparent in New York City, which had large numbers of ethnic communities that tended to be congregated in their own lower-class urban districts within the city.  Gangs staked out their own “self-governed” territories, and at the territorial boundaries, there were often clashes between rival gangs.  Most of West Side Story’s creators were Jewish and familiar with, and likely sensitive to, the New York Jewish community’s experiences within that multi-cultured urban milieu.  In fact early versions of the script treatment concerned a Jewish street gang’s struggles with another gang in New York’s Lower East Side.  Ultimately, though, Laurents decided to fashion the story around a Puerto Rican gang’s encounters with a “white’  gang on New York’s Upper West Side.

Since the film would involve many camera closeups, the casting for the film required actors and actresses who could believably appear to be teenagers.  This led to the fortunate casting of Natalie Wood in the role of Maria (the “Juliet” role in this story). Ms. Wood, who had already achieved fame as a 17-year-old in the iconic Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and would also star the same year in Splendor in  the Grass (1961), had a special allure that made all of her roles stay in my memory.  There was something about her eyes that suggested passion and latent anguish, and her emotive facial expressions were fully exploited in West Side Story.  Her musical numbers were dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also sang (in dubbed voiceover) the songs of the female leads in two other classic musicals – The King and I (1956) and My Fair Lady (1964).

Two other performers who stand out for me are Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno.  Tamblyn plays a major role as the leader of the Jets street gang, and his singing and amazingly acrobatic dancing are outstanding.  Ms. Moreno, who had earlier appeared in a small but important role in The King and I, was very effective as Maria’s best friend, Anita, and she well deserved her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The plot of Romeo and Juliet, which involves two young people meeting, falling madly in love, and then dying, only spans a period of about five days.  If we think about it, that timeline may seem to be too short to be about a serious love.  But Shakespeare’s poetic artistry sweeps those concerns away, and we succumb to the passions evoked.  In West Side Story, though, the narrative timeline for a similar love story only covers two days.  Nevertheless, here, too, the cinematic expressionism dominates, and any concerns about realism do not arise as we watch the story.

The story is divided into two acts.

Act 1 – The Jets and the Sharks
Like Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story opens with a street fight between two rival groups, the Jets and the Sharks.  The Sharks are a street gang made up of Hispanic immigrants who were born in Puerto Rico.  The Jets are a “white” (Polish and Irish) gang of first-generation immigrants.  Since the Jets were born in America, they feel the Sharks are foreign interlopers on their native territory.

After the fight is broken up by the police, the Jets’ leader, Riff (played by Russ Tamblyn), resolves to confront the Sharks that night at a dance that will be held at a local gym.  Riff also wants to get his best friend and former Jets co-founder, Tony (Richard Beymer), involved in the dispute.  Tony, who has a job and no longer actively participates in the gang, still feels loyalty to his old pal and agrees to come to the dance that night.

Meanwhile we see Maria (Natalie Wood) and Anita (Rita Moreno) working at a local sewing  shop.  Maria is the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo (George Chakiris), aka “Nardo”, while Anita is Nardo’s girlfriend.

At the dance, Tony and Maria see each other and immediately fall madly in love.  They start dancing, and when they are about to kiss, they are angrily interrupted by Nardo, who is concerned about “protecting” his sister (i.e. posturing about his own “honor”).  This leads to an anger-fueled agreement between Riff and Nardo for the two rival gangs to hold a “war council” at Doc’s drugstore later that evening.  Tony, meanwhile, is enthralled with the girl he has just met and wanders outside on the street singing the song “Maria”.

After the dance, Tony goes outside the window of Maria’s apartment and calls to her.  They meet on the outdoor fire escape and affirm their passionate love for each other, singing the song “Tonight”.  They agree to meet at her shop the next day after closing time.

Even later that night, at Doc’s drugstore, the two gangs have their war council to decide the terms of their “rumble” (battle) to determine the future of their neighborhood.  Tony arrives late and convinces them to only have a one-on-one battle between two chosen warriors of each gang.

Act 2 – The Rumble
The next day, Maria in her shop is delirious with love and sings the delightful song “I Feel Pretty”.  Although some might dismiss this as merely adolescent narcissism, to me it expresses something magical about the teenage experience everyone has about growing self-awareness – the realization that you have a changing identity and that you can be enamored with someone else’s changing identity. 
I feel charming,
Oh, so charming
It's alarming how charming I feel!
And so pretty
That I hardly can believe I'm real.
. . .
I feel stunning
And entrancing,
Feel like running and dancing for joy,
For I'm loved
By a pretty wonderful boy!
Tony shows up at the shop, but Anita sees him and realizes Tony and Maria have an illicit love.  Anita also reveals to Maria that later that night there will be a rumble. After Anita leaves, Maria convinces Tony to go to the rumble and stop it from happening.  They then play with the shop’s dress dummies to stage a mock wedding for themselves and sing the song “One Hand, One Heart”.  They agree to meet later that night when Tony comes back.

After Tony leaves, there is a presentation of the film’s famed “Tonight Quintet”, a beautifully crafted song combining the separately located crooning of the Jets, the Sharks, Anita, Maria, and Tony, all anticipating in their own separate ways that something thrilling is about to happen.

At the rumble between the two hostile gangs, Tony tries to stop it.  But his intervention in the fisticuffs leads only to Riff getting killed by Nardo, after which Tony kills Nardo.

Tony makes it back to Maria’s bedroom and tells her what happened.  They express their almost hopeless romantic dreams in the duet “Somewhere.” Then they make plans to escape together with money that Tony hopes to borrow from his boss Doc, and he tells her to meet him later at Doc’s drugstore.  After Tony leaves, Anita arrives at Maria’s room and confronts Maria.  Anita, overwhelmed with grief and anger over the death of her boyfriend, and Maria, concerned for the safety of her true love, then sing one of the greatest songs in musical history – the duet “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love”.

The final segments of the film are all misunderstandings, anger, and hostility.  The climax doesn’t transpire quite like Romeo and Juliet, but Tony does wind up getting killed by a vengeful member of the Sharks gang just as he is embracing Maria and about to escape.  All the Sharks and Jets assemble at the death scene, and Maria tearfully tells them all that it was not a gun that killed Tony, it was hate.


So in this story, at least on the worldly level, love is defeated by hate.  But of course it is not always that way, and in America, especially, it is not supposed to be that way.  This film in fact is partly an artistic examination of the “American Dream” – the image of a land of opportunity where people can come and be free to follows their own dreams [2].  But in the story presented, this film suggests that the current urban jungle (at least in the 1950s) is so muddied by hate that it is raising problems for the realization of the American Dream
 
Since there is a key focus on street gangs, one might be tempted to blame everything bad that happens on gangs.  But it’s not that simple.  People join gangs for several reasons:
  • Power and Wealth.  When people cooperate as a team, they are more effective in the world.  They have expanded capabilities, and this leads to a general increase in gang members’ utilities.
     
  • Respect and Identity.  Joining a powerful group enables the joiner to identify with the group and enhance his or her prestige.
     
  • Protection. Being in a gang can protect an individual from exploitation and mistreatment by other gangs.  One often has to join a gang as a means of self defense.
The last item listed, protection, is particularly important.  Encounters in crowded environments such as the urban jungle, whether between individuals or with groups, tend to be oriented along two lines (an encounter can be a mixture of these):
  • Cooperative.  Two agents (individual or group) get together to cooperate, such as by making a trade. 
     
  • Extractive.  One agent seeks to take wealth from a perceived weaker agent.  This is the law of the jungle, and most gangs seem to be engaged in extractive activities. 
Although cooperation is clearly better on the aggregate level, extraction is more straightforward and simpler to implement.  Nevertheless, gangs are usually oriented internally in a cooperative arrangement, because it is a more effective way for them to operate.  The real issue is not the elimination of gangs – they can serve a useful purpose – but how to get gangs to engage cooperatively on the external social scale.  This is where love does come in.

The moving duet between Anita and Maria, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love”, expresses the call for us to follow our own loving hearts and overcome selfish feelings of resentment and hatred.  We can make a conscious decision to do this, and this is what Maria asks Anita to do:
Anita:
A boy like that who'd kill your brother,
Forget that boy and find another,
One of your own kind,
Stick to your own kind!
. . .
A boy who kills cannot love,
A boy who kills has no heart.
And he's the boy who gets your love
And gets your heart.
Very smart, Maria, very smart!

Maria:
Oh no, Anita, no,
Anita, no!
It isn't true, not for me,
It's true for you, not for me.
I hear your words
And in my head
I know they're smart,
But my heart, Anita,
But my heart
Knows they're wrong
. . .
I have a love, and it's all that I have.
Right or wrong, what else can I do?
I love him; I'm his,
And everything he is
I am, too.
I have a love, and it's all that I need,
Right or wrong, and he needs me, too.
I love him, we're one;
There's nothing to be done,
Not a thing I can do
But hold him, hold him forever,
Be with him now, tomorrow
And all of my life!
This is West Side Story’s true message, and it is just as relevant today in our current resentment-filled environment, which has been fueled by social and political voices expressing hatred and contempt.  We need to respond to our own inner urges to love – which is our true authentic being – and we need eloquent voices like Maria’s reminding us to do so.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Rodgers and Hammerstein were famous for a string of Broadway hits, the filmed versions of which included Oklahoma! (1955), Carousel (1956), The King and I (1956), South Pacific (1958), and The Sound of Music (1965).
  2. Marilyn Ferdinand, “West Side Story (1961)”, Ferdy on Film, (2016).   
  3. “2011 National Gang Threat Assessment – Emerging Trends”, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), (2011). 

Habibollah Bahmani

Films of Habibollah Bahmani:

Maziar Bahari

Films of Maziar Bahari:

Homayoun Assadian

Films of Homayoun Assadian:

Kambuzia Partovi

Films of Kambuzia Partovi:

Walter Lang

Films of Walter Lang:

“The King and I” - Walter Lang (1956)

Musical theater has a long and varied history, but for many people its surge in the US after WWII  seemed to suggest almost a new art form.  This was largely due to the unparalleled creative collaboration of Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics), who produced a string of unforgettable musicals during this period.  These included the Broadway hit shows Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959).  Filmed versions of these shows, which reached much wider worldwide audiences, were released over an even shorter time span – Oklahoma! (1955), Carousel (1956), The King and I (1956), South Pacific (1958), and The Sound of Music (1965) – and they collectively had the effect of establishing a new, indelible genre.  Expectations were established back then that there would always be a new and wonderful musical film coming just around the corner. But Rodgers and Hammerstein were unique, and their “golden age” of musicals has never since been matched. 

Of that string of hit musical films, The King and I (1956), with its exotic setting and eccentric leading character, was a particularly memorable Rodgers & Hammerstein creation and remains a favorite to this day [1].  Directed by Walter Lang and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the film  was nominated for 9 Oscars and won 5 of them, mostly associated with its lavish production values.  Perhaps the most significant contributor to that production, though, was the actor Yul Brynner, who played the role of the King of Siam.  With his shaved head (in those days a rarity) and emphatic gestures, Brynner stamped the entire production with his own unique stage personality.  Brynner had been the star of the original Broadway production, too, and throughout his career he replayed the role in revived versions of the musical play, so that by the end of his life, he had played the role on stage more than 4,600 times.

The story of The King and I is based on the autobiographically recounted experiences of an English schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, who went to Bangkok, Siam (now Thailand), in 1862 to teach the children of the monarch, King Mongtuk.  The evolution of this account has had its own interesting path.  Leonowens’s memoirs were published in the 1870s – The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and Romance of the Harem (1872).  These later served as the basis for Margaret Landon’s semi-fictionalized novel, Anna and the King of Siam (1944). The novel was then made into a dramatic film directed by John Cromwell, Anna and the King of Siam (1946).  Hammerstein was influenced by both Landon’s novel and Cromwell’s film when the lyricist constructed the script for the musical play, The King and I (1951) [2].  Thus we have the following sequence of narrative development:
“reality” –> memoirs –> book –> dramatic film  –> stage musical –> musical film
However, all along the way, including even with Leonowens’s’ original memoirs, there were considerable liberties taken with respect to historical accuracy.  So by the time we get to the film, some significant deviations from the historically true account had crept into the story.  Indeed this may partly account for why both the stage musical and the film were banned from being shown in Thailand, where draconian lèse majesté laws prohibit any depictions of the royal family that might be construed as disrespectful [3].  Anyway, those issues of historical accuracy are not my concern here; the film’s narrative is a fascinating and entertaining tale, irrespective of its historical precision.

We should remember, as I mentioned in my review of Oklahoma!, that musical films are by their very nature expressionistic.  The songs and dances shown in such films reflect the emotive states of the characters, and so the expressionism here is not so much present in the physical environmental context (the usual case with expressionistic films), but rather in a musical context.  And since the films are expressionistic, we cannot really expect them to present an “objective” account of the events depicted.  But they still may offer and reflect some inner truth worth holding onto.

Note that with most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, the emotive expressionism is not just restricted to romantic feelings; there are also significant social concerns covered, as well.  In the case of The King and I, there are three overlapping themes of interest.  Two of them can be related to King Mongkut’s passionate interest and measures in introducing and spreading Western “scientific” modernism across his tradition-bound kingdom.  Mongkut wanted to usher Siam into the modern world, and he contracted Anna Leonowens to come over from England and instruct his numerous children in Western ways.  But modernism included some Enlightenment-inspired humanistic notions about the social fabric which Mongkut was not prepared to accept.  Nevertheless, autocratic regimes have often exploited modernism’s fruits for their own exploitative ends, and the third social theme concerns a crucial counterweight that is complementary to the modernistic mind.  The three themes were
  • Human Rights.  Along with modern scientific thinking came notions of basic human rights.  Siam was still saturated with slavery, and obeisance to the king was always mandatory.  These backward restrictions are still reflected today in the country’s lèse majesté prohibitions.
     
  • Equality of Women.  The idea that women could be equal to men was shocking to the Siam of 1862.  This is a recurring theme in the film.
     
  • Love.  Associated with Modernism is a reductive, “Objectivist” way of looking at the world that increasingly impoverishes and threatens our existence.  Love opens the door to another way of being, and this, too, is alluded to in the film.
The story of The King and I is set in the traditional theatrical arrangement of two acts separated by an intermission.  Like Oklahoma!, the first act has most of the songs in it and sets the overall mood, while the second act is shorter and contains a dramatic turn of events that leads to a crisis.
Act 1 – Anna Arrives and Begins as the King’s Governess
The film’s focalization focus, the widowed Englishwoman Anna Leonowens (played by Deborah Kerr), arrives in Bangkok and is introduced to King Mongkut (Yul Brynner).  She is to be the teacher of fifteen children of the King’s many wives – there are sixty-seven other children of the King’s less favored wives who are not included.  Right away there is conflict between Anna and Mongkut over whether the imperious king will live up to his promise to give Anna and her young son their own house.

Also introduced is Tuptim (Rita Moreno), a young woman who has been presented to Mongkut as a gift from the Prince of Burma.  It is immediately evident that Tuptim is in love with the man who has been ordered to deliver this gift, Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas).

The King tries to show off his “scientific” mind to Anna, but their relationship is mostly testy, primarily because of the King’s pompous and, what seems to us, adolescent behavior.  This included the King’s prideful demand that all his subjects’, including Anna’s, heads should be at an elevation below his. (The almost equal heights of Yul Brynner (5' 8“) and Deborah Kerr (5' 7“) make this an even more amusing issue.)

After one of their arguments, Anna finally decides to return to England.  However, the King’s senior wife, Lady Thiang (Terry Saunders), comes to Anna’s room and beseeches her in a beautiful song, “Something Wonderful”, to stay.  Anna relents and learns that the King is worried that British imperialists see him only as a “barbarian” in need of protective takeover.  Anna convinces the King to invite the British diplomats to a “Westernized” banquet to show how civilized he is.

Act 1 features a string of great songs – “I Whistle a Happy Tune” (Anna), “The March of the Siamese Children” (orchestral), “Hello, Young Lovers” (Anna), “A Puzzlement” (King Mongkut), “Getting to Know You” (Anna), “We Kiss in a Shadow” (Tuptim and Lun Tha), and “Something Wonderful” (Lady Thiang).  For the songs sung by Anna, Deborah Kerr’s voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also sang the songs for Maria in West Side Story (1961).  The voices of Rita Moreno (Tuptim) and Carlos Rivas (Lun Tha) were also dubbed, by Leona Gordon and Reuben Fuentes, respectively.  However, Yul Brynner (King Mongtuk) and Terry Saunders (Lady Thiang) performed their own vocals.
Act 2 – The Banquet and its Aftermath 
In Act 2 the banquet is held, and with Anna’s coaching, King Mongkut impresses his foreign guests as an enlightened monarch.  The after dinner entertainment for the hosted guests is a balletic play composed by Tuptim that is based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). This 14-minute dance scene, unlike similar lengthy Act 2 dance scenes in Oklahoma! and Carousel, is brilliant.  Those dance numbers in Oklahoma! and Carousel are tedious interruptions that don’t integrate well with the rest of their films, whereas this piece in The King and I significantly contributes to the narrative.  Credit is due to Jerome Robbins’s choreography and the colorful staging of this entrancing piece.

Tuptim’s anti-slavery theatrical diatribe doesn’t go down well with King Mongtuk, since she is his slave and is demanding her freedom.  But the King is elated over his banquet success and doesn’t notice that Tuptim disappears after the balletic play comes to an end. 

In fact the King is so satisfied at this point that he speaks to Anna alone afterwards and gives her a precious ring that he takes off his own hand.  Then they talk about how men and women socialize in the West. He exuberantly sings a little rhetorical song to her about honeybees and blossoms that reflect his view of the naturally marked inequality between men and women – an attitude that is in striking contrast with Anna’s Western egalitarian views.  Then when Anna reminisces about what it was like to go to a dance by singing the song “Shall We Dance?”, the King enthusiastically takes Anna in his arms and waltzes around the room with her.

Their waltzing is interrupted by an announcement that Tuptim has been captured trying to flee the royal palace.  The King’s authoritarian instincts tell him to whip the poor girl, but when he looks at Anna’s horrified face, he feels a conflicting passion and cannot go through with it. He immediately becomes despondent and isolates himself from everybody.

The closing scenes are sad, as the King’s despondency evidently leads to his deteriorating health and immanent death [4].  Before he dies, Anna promises to him that she will stay in Bangkok and provide guidance for the King’s crown prince son and future king.

The great popularity of The King and I is of course largely attributable to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein.  But just as important was the onscreen chemistry between Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.  Kerr perfectly embodies the essence of Western feminine civility (seen through a 19th century British lens); while Brynner energizes the male side of the relationship with his infectious and rambunctious personality.  Most of the memorable dramatic scenes in the film, apart from the songs, involve their various encounters and efforts to bridge the enormous gap between them.

However, beyond the evolving and tentatively romantic relationship of those two, there are those three overlying (and, I will argue, overlapping) social issues that I mentioned earlier – Human Rights, Women’s Inequality, and Love.   These are not much explicitly articulated in the film, but they are worth our further consideration.

The first two of those social issues – Human Rights and Women’s Inequality – are clear cut.  Slavery was rife in Siam, and Tuptim’s designated punishment for trying to escape was torture by whipping.  Mongtuk’s many wives were essentially concubines and were brought up to believe they were inferior beings.  In fact when they first see Anna’s independent bearing and assertiveness, they address her as “Sir”, since she seemed to have the self-possession that only a man could have. 

So the implication seems to be that if King Mongtuk was truly wishing to modernize Siam, he should also introduce Western norms and laws in line with human rights and the inequality of women.  This he was reluctant to do, but by the end of the film he (and perhaps his crown prince son, too) seems to have begun to acquiesce on some of these matters.  I have argued elsewhere that for a modern country to be successful in the globalized world, it need to have a structure that provides  Human Rights, Open Markets, Democracy, and the Rule of Law (RMDL) [5].  In other words, what King Mongtuk needed to do was to align his country with the principles of RMDL,  which are derived from liberal ideas that arose from the Enlightenment (Age of Reason) and continued over the last several hundred years in Europe and North America.  Of course, the details concerning how to establish an efficient, fair, and just society are more complicated, but the advantages of the simple RMDL formulation is that it can be remembered and easily propagated to the populace by those who wish to make it the basis of their democratic government aspirations.  This is important, because even today there are many countries across the globe that claim to embrace “scientific thinking” but fall far short of truly implementing the RMDL principles.

However, the RMDL principles are still based on Western modernist ideas, and there are some cogent currents of thought that claim that Western modernist principles omit some important aspects of being and thereby limit us.  Martin Heidegger, for example, in his essay The Question Concerning Technology (1955/1977) [6] argued that modern technology, by relying on objective analysis and seeing everything in nature as “standing reserve”, limits our focus to a reductionist perspective of reality [7].  It’s not just that modern technology exploits and often misuses the natural world and the common pool resources within it.  The problem is, beyond those acknowledged problems, modern technology severely restricts the way we see the world, including how we see ourselves.  Thus this reductionist perspective, which can be called “Objectivism”, not only restricts our view, but also restricts our very being.  Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others have argued that we need an “Interactionist” perspective that embodies the full compass of experience [8].

Note that it is not that the Objectivist perspective is wrong and should be discarded.  Objectivist models have proven to be enormously useful approximations of reality.  But besides their utility, reductive Objectivist notions limit our perspective – they don’t encompass the full, rich nature of reality. We instinctively feel this when we contemplate the difference between “knowing what” (e.g. an Objectivist model of physics) and “knowing how” (e.g. the Interactionist skills of walking and being able to ride a bicycle) [9]. Such Interactionist engagements with the world involve what Merleau-Ponty called the “intentional arc” – our tight, fully-connected interactions involving our wholly embodied selves. 

What the Interactionists are saying is that the world of our being is much richer than our Objectivist models allow.  As an example of the impoverishment of total Objectivist thinking,  some reductivist philosophers, mindful of Objectivism’s failure to account for consciousness, have argued that consciousness doesn’t really exist and is merely an illusion.  This is what happens when your Objectivist blinders restrict your full experience of being.

Note also that the Interactionist perspective is not some new idea that has only recently been presented by Existentialist philosophers.  Its basic notions go back to the earliest stirrings of philosophy.  For example, ancient Yogic/Vedic teachings put forth the notion that consciousness (mind) has four components [10,11]:
  • Manas – the sensory experiencing mind
  • Chitta (Citta) – the storage of impressions and heartfelt wishes
  • Ahankara – the self identity, the ego
  • Buddhi – the knower that analyzes, judges, and discriminates
They suggest that (a) it is the Buddhi, with its Objectivist perspective, that has come to dominate our daily lives and that (b) we are not living our lives in awareness of and accord with the full spectrum of mindful being.

Returning now to that third social issue of The King and I, Love, it is that wider spectrum of being that love affords us.  By love, here, I am not referring to simple ego-thrilling romance or sexual attraction.  I am talking instead about the world-altering experience of feeling true, selfless love.  Interactionism includes love

When near the end of the film King Mongtuk, full of angry resentment, is about to whip poor Tuptim for trying to escape, he glances at Anna’s horrified face.  His vengeful Buddhi mind has been telling him that he must administer the punishment – these are the rules.  But now another feeling, from another quarter of his consciousness, has intervened.  This is his feeling of hitherto unacknowledged love for Anna.  At the end of the film, Anna confesses to her young son that she, too, felt a love for the King.

This is what we all need in order to help our increasingly interconnected and threatened world survive – a full implementation of RMDL principles and a readiness to respond to the call of love.  This was perhaps best expressed in my favorite song of the film, Lady Thiang’s heartfelt invocation of “Something Wonderful”.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Bosley Crowther, “Screen: 'The Kind and I'”, The New York Times, (29 June 1956).   
  2. “The King and I”, Wikipedia, (24 March 2017).   
  3. “Lèse majesté in Thailand”, Wikipedia, (25 March 2017).   
  4. This is a historical fabrication, although the real King Mongkut did die of malaria in 1868.
  5. See my reviews of Head Wind (2008),  Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013), An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989), Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), Michael Moore in Trumpland (2016), and Taxi (2015).
  6. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, William Levitt (trans.), Harper, (1977), pp. 3-35.
  7. Mark Blitz, “Understanding Heidegger on Technology“, The New Atlantis, (Number 41, Winter 2014). 
  8. For further discussion of Interactionism see my reviews:
  9. Martin K. Purvis & Maryam A. Purvis, “Institutional expertise in the Service-Dominant Logic: Knowing how and knowing what”, Journal of Marketing Management 28:13-14, 1626-1641, (23 November 2012).
  10. Sadhguru, “Harnessing the True Power of the Mind”, (Yoga & Meditation, Science of Yoga), Isha, (15 May 2015). 
  11. There are also Buddhist notions and other variants that offer different partitionings, but they have the similar idea that our very being can be reduced by not being aware of the full abundance of mindful interactive existence.