"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). 

No comments: