Indian camera, Iranian heart
Ranjita Ganesan provides an account of the early collaborative talkies of Abdolhossein Sepanta (1933-37)
Every day for some months in 1935, Abdolhossein Sepanta dutifully made the dull commute from Bandra to Andheri in Bombay. By this time the financial capital of India and home of Indian cinema were familiar to Sepanta, a young poet and journalist from Tehran who attended theatre school in his youth. He had studied and worked in India for a number of years, taking on assignments as a writer and translator. He had also scripted and made three of the earliest Persian-language sound films (‘talkies’) in collaboration with a studio in Bombay. The first of these had been Dokhtar-e Lor (Lor Girl, 1933), a costume drama featuring gypsies, bandits and government officials.
Those daily train journeys in 1935 marked a departure of sorts, as Sepanta had just fallen out with his initial collaborator Ardeshir Irani of the Imperial Films Company, the pioneer of Indian talkies. So he was travelling instead to the leafy studios of a rival production house, which had agreed to back his next passion project. Released in both Iran and India, his films are a fascinating early example of co-productions in the East. His experiences are also indicative of the remarkable difficulties of making cinema in those years.
Even if cut short, Sepanta’s time with Imperial Films was significant. Originally having arrived in India in 1927 with a desire to understand the Zoroastrian history of Iran, he wrote for publications of the Bombay-based Iran League – an organisation that aimed to keep ties alive between Indian Zoroastrians and their old land Iran. Sepanta was introduced to the prolific producer Irani in 1932, who had just produced an Urdu film Daku ki Ladki. ‘Seeing the film, plus the friendship between my employer (Dinshah Irani) and Ardeshir Irani gave me the perfect opportunity to interest Ardeshir in producing a film in Persian language’ Sepanta is quoted as having written in his memoirs.
An ambitious Ardeshir Irani (possibly) did not need much convincing. He had raced against more established competitors to make the first Indian talkie Alam Ara in 1931 – exporting films to Iran would be another feather in his pheta. Episodes from the Persian epic Shahnameh as well as Islamic fantasy tales from One Thousand and One Nights were already part of the public imagination in Bombay, given their adaptation by the popular Parsi theatre. When motion pictures emerged, a number of these became recurring themes in cinema too; among them Shirin va Farhad and Leili va Majnun. So the two set off making familiar yet exotic films for both the Iranian and Indian markets.
Irani, described by Sepanta as an excellent film editor, offered him technical advice, along with books on script writing and directing. Directed by Irani, Sepanta wrote and played the lead in Lor Girl. Together, they persuaded Roohangiz Saminejad, wife of an Iranian staff driver at Imperial Films, to take on the female lead during a time when few women were willing to appear on screen. Her lilting Kermani accent, while playing a Lorestani character, had to be explained in a plot point; nevertheless it appealed to audiences and some even mimicked her lines.
As the first ever Persian talkie, Sepanta felt it should stir patriotism among viewers. He conceived of a hero Jafar, a government agent investigating bandits who, it is implied, thrived during the Qajar era. His search leads him to a coffee house where he meets and falls in love with a dancer, Golnar. Golnar is a heroine ahead of her time: she thwarts unwanted advances of men, flirts proactively with Jafar and pulls off daring escapes and rescues. The two set off together to find the chief bandit Gholi Khan’s hideout and succeed in killing him. Fearing for their lives, they sail to Bombay port and later, having learnt of a secure and prosperous Iran under Pahlavi rule, return to Iran. The film’s alternative title ‘Iran of yesterday and Iran of today’ speaks directly to its underlying message of advancement under Reza Shah.
Lor Girl is the only Sepanta film to have survived. It featured luminous costumes, a two-minute dance sequence, a flashback, several songs and gun-battles, all contributing to its success. Khuzestan had been recreated in Chembur, then a verdant, far-flung part of Bombay. When the couple flees to India, there are glimpses of the Gateway of India, Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Rajabai Clock Tower. Despite its talkie credentials, intertitles were inserted to inform of time lapses and plot details. Following the film’s enthusiastic reception – the applause in Cinema Mayak was so loud one movie critic felt ‘the floor of the theatre tremble’ – Irani handed over direction to Sepanta for the next releases, Ferdowsi (1934) and Shirin va Farhad (1934).
By now, the young writer had brought in Fakhri Vaziri from Iran, who worked in an acting school, and gave her a break on screen as Shirin. To meet and convince Vaziri’s parents, he even brought along his own mother, wife and son. The partnership with Irani withered after Sepanta was disappointed with his share in the returns; he joined other Indian studios to direct his next costume dramas. Vaziri accompanied the director on the humid train commutes to film Cheshman-e Siah (Black Eyes) with Shree Krishna Films, which released it in 1936. Based on Nader Shah’s invasion of India, this film was perhaps Sepanta’s most publicised, especially aimed at India’s Parsi viewers as a special release for the kadmi New Year holiday.
The director’s most positive experience was in Bengal, telling the love story Leyli and Majnun (1937) with the East India Film Company, which had access to advanced cameras and sound equipment. Through detailed meetings with the studio, he learnt about pre-production. Vaziri co-starred in this film too, which was reported by the Times of India to have an ‘Oriental atmosphere’ and ‘probably the best Persian talkie made in India or Iran.’ On returning to Iran soon thereafter, his filmmaking hopes suffered as distributors tried to purchase the films cheaply, and government support for cinema was not forthcoming. Instead, he resumed journalism and eventually made home movies with an 8mm camera. His cinematic contributions are not forgotten; acknowledged as father of Iranian sound films, his Lor Girl is a subject of academic and general interest, and the Iranian Film Festival in San Francisco (est. 2007) is titled Sepanta Awards.
The story of Sepanta’s efforts between 1933 and 1937 is, importantly, the story of how two cultures enriched each other. It is unfortunate that despite popular release in Iran and India, only one of the five films remains available for viewing. Still, as Irani’s Alam Ara appears to be lost forever, Lor Girl preserves the legacy of two important artists and is a thing to be cherished.
Ranjita Ganesan is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on subjects of culture and the arts for the Indian daily Business Standard and has contributed to outlets including Reuters and Hindustan Times. She recently completed the MA in Iranian Studies at SOAS
This article appears in the Iranian Cinema issue of The Middle East in London.
Ganesan, Ranjita. ‘Indian camera, Iranian heart’ The Middle East in London 15, no. 2 (February–March 2019); 5-6.