New TV series Shahrzad evokes memories of life in Iran during the 1950s.
by Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh
Set in the early 1950s Iran, in the era just after the US-led coup that reinstated Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, a new Iranian TV serial, Shahrzad, tells the story of an innocent love tormented by power games and corruption.
The serial, now in its 27th episode, has captivated Iran with its double-edged criticism of what went on then and the starting similarities with today.
It revives the memory of those painful days in August 1953 when the military, supported by the US intelligence (CIA) and its local operatives, stormed the residence of the elected premier of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq and, after a nine-hour battle, captured him.
The local sound effects for the event were provided by Sha’ban "the brainless", who led noisy pro-Shah demonstrations from the red-light district to the bazaar with the full support of the gendarmerie. The Shah returned home from Baghdad where he had fled for safety, and the armed forces dismantled all rival political parties, discharging all officers loyal to Mossadeq.
Shahrzad and Farhad are two young intellectuals in love caught in this period of military transition. They often meet in Cafe Naderi near the fashionable Lalehzar quarter of Tehran, listening to music and reciting love poems but at the same time seriously following political developments.
Scenes of interrogation
Shahrzad is a bold, confident young woman studying to become a doctor and Farhad is a journalist working for a pro-Mossadeq newspaper, Bakhtar Emrouz.
His office is ransacked by the mob and he is falsely implicated in the killing of one of the Shah's Guards of Honour.
Farhad, together with several of his colleagues, are charged with murder and sentenced to death. The scenes of interrogation, torture in prison and false confessions that precede the executions are reminiscent of today, as are the secret intelligence agents constantly following opposition figures.Shahrzad works as a part-time nurse for the powerful Bozorg Agha [Grand Master]. Desperate to save Farhad, she decides to ask Bozorg Agha for help, not knowing that he's the one who has financed "the brainless" mob.
He agrees to help on the condition that Shahrzad becomes a surrogate mother for his daughter, who cannot have children.
Shahrzad, torn between her love for Farhad and her own dignity, agrees. She lies to Farhad to save his life and becomes second wife to Bozorg Agha's son-in-law.
A web of intrigues follows, ruining the life not just of Shahrzad and Farhad but also of Bozorg Agha's own daughter and the baby born as his heir.
In political affairs, too, Bozorg Agha destroys all rivals by ordering their annihilation.
Highly political nature
Despite the highly political nature of the story, Shahrzad has managed to pass all censors and capture huge audiences.
It is an online TV serial financed and produced privately and marketed through what is known as Family Entertainment Network (FEN). It is available on DVD in Iran and online for Persian speakers around the world.
Shahrzad is the first successful quality production serial on FEN, which is increasingly an important medium of entertainment. Its director, Hassan Fathi, has co-written the script with Naghmeh Samini both diligently observing Islamic redlines but also bold in their messages.
Productions such as Shahrzad are not easy in Iran. Apart from the censor, there are major issues with financing and timely production and distribution, which have in the past been erratic.
Attention must be paid to every word used and to every detail of clothing and costume design to avoid being blocked.
Shahrzad is a winner in almost all these lines but perhaps especially because it is strong in casting. Ali Nassirian, acting at the age of 81 in the role of Bozorg Agha, is "superb".
"He surpasses three generations in creating a charismatic yet ruthless character," says actor and critic, Ali Alaei.
There are several other prizewinners in the cast, such as Mehdi Soltani, Shahab Hosseini, and Taraneh Alidoosti in the role of Shahrzad. Mostafa Zamani in the role of Farhad is also impressive.
In its storyline, the serial benefits from juxtaposing a double-edged message between then and now on taboo subjects such as social freedoms.
We are taken into a world where men and women dressed in high fashion are meeting in public, listening to music, going to coffee bars and to the cinema for dates. We are reminded of love in scenes that evoke Casablanca and Gone With the Wind.
Although the serial has been criticised for some minor aspects, its central message resonates with most. Bozorg Agha, mightily powerful, highly charismatic and manipulative, speaks to Iran today. He feeds on the underlying corruption in the political system that allows extrajudicial action against all those who come in his way. Obey him and you kill love, disobey him and you will be destroyed - that's Shahrazad’s dilemma.
If dubbed or subtitled, Shahrzad could compete well regionally with successful serials such as the Turkish Hareem al-Sultan. Its success may set an example for Iran's official broadcasting authority, IRIB, that it is possible to create quality entertainment and popular serials while preserving their religious borderlines.
Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
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