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Death of Iranian cinema legend sparks calls for return of pre-revolutionary stars

Following Nasser Malek-Motiee's death, actors and artists are pushing the government to welcome back stars banned after 1979
Fans gather at Malek-Motiee's funeral in Tehran, some reportedly chanting anti-government slogans (Twitter/@mahsti25metana1)

TEHRAN - The death of an Iranian film star unofficially banned after the 1979 revolution has sparked a push from a star-studded line up who want banished actors of the country's golden era of cinema to appear on the silver screen once again.

Naser Malek-Motiee, who died on 25 May at the age of 88, was called "the king of Iranian cinema" and was best known for playing an everyday hero that helped the poor and fought against corruption.

Along with actors Mohammad-Ali Fardin and Behrouz Vosoughi, Malek-Motiee was a star of the film farsi genre, low-budget films of the 1960s and 1970s that attempted to reconcile Iran’s religious traditions with the growing influences of the West.

Nasser Malek-Motiee, Mohammad Ali Fardin and Behrouz Vossoughi in the 1960s (Wikicommons)
With the 1979 revolution, the genre came to an end and many actors, including Malek-Motiee - who were seen as symbols inextricably linked with the era of the Shah - were unofficially banned from appearing in films.

At his funeral in Tehran, thousands of fans gathered, some who reportedly chanted anti-government slogans. His son, Amir Ali, asked the crowd: “Why are my father’s photos shown on news channels now? Why are photos of an actor only allowed after his death?”

Every artist should be permitted to work inside the country without limitation, and this should be turned into the official cultural policy of the country

- Behzad Farahani, actor 

It’s a question that a group of Iranian film stars and other artists - who have had their own golden era with success at the Oscars, Cannes and Venice in recent years while still working under restrictions - have now put to President Hassan Rouhani after launching a campaign to end the bans after Malek-Motiee’s death.

“I believe that the condition in the country must be ready for the growth of the arts, and no censorship should happen,” Behzad Farahani, a veteran actor, told Middle East Eye. 

“Every artist should be permitted to work inside the country without limitation, and this should be turned into the official cultural policy of the country."

Thrillers, melodramas and musicals

Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran's cinema industry was known for producing popular movies that were mostly thrillers, melodramas and musicals.

Many of the films, like 1965’s Ganje Qaroun (Qaroun's Treasure), which tells the story of two poor youths who save a rich man from suicide and open him up to another part of society, focused on introducing new heroes to cinema goers.
Actor Mohammed-Ali Fardin, playing one of the young men, sings to the man he has rescued and now invited to his home, asking him to dance and be happy.

Arameh Etemadi, a film critic, told Middle East Eye: "The cinema industry in Iran before the revolution relied mostly on selling tickets and the audience of the movies were ordinary people on the streets, and their attraction to a movie could make the film a hit."

But after the revolution, movies concentrated on ethics and focused on educating audiences, rather than entertaining and films like Ganje Qaroun couldn’t get permission to be screened.

Several artists were unofficially banned from acting in films, and others who didn’t fall out of favour straight away left the country because they felt they couldn’t work in the restrictive environment. Some were allowed to continue working.

Farahani told Middle East Eye that artists like Malek-Motiee were specifically prohibited because they reminded people of the Shah.

From superstar to estate agent

Born in Tehran in 1930, Malek-Motiee was working as a high-school sports teacher when his father opened a cinema in the city centre.

The theatre eventually closed down over money troubles, but by then Malek-Motiee was on his way to becoming a star after answering an advertisement looking for actors for a comedy film.

Nasser Malek-Motiee (Wikicommons)
From his short-lived role in that comedy, Malek-Motiee went on to gain prominence for regularly playing a jahel, a Persian word which is literally translated as "ignorant", and used to describe street thugs in pre-revolutionary Iran who bullied and bothered people with no one daring to stop them.

But unlike a typical thug – or like Shaban Jafari, Iran’s most famous jahel, who helped overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in the 1953 US-backed coup – Malek-Motiee was a street hero, helping poor people, fighting corruption and bullying thugs.

Gradually, Malek-Motiee turned into a national symbol of manhood and bravery.

Etemadi said: "In pre-revolution cinema of Iran, heroes were honest and indifferent to wealth and were sometimes willing to sacrifice themselves for protecting their values."

Malek-Motiee's popularity rose when he starred in the 1969 film Qeysar in which he played Farmoun, a former street thug whose sister has killed herself after being raped. He plans to take revenge against her rapist, but then puts down his knife only to be killed.

His role was small, but his character became well-known with his lines still quoted in colloquial Farsi today.

After the revolution, Malek-Motiee, along with Fardin, starred in the 1982 movie Barzakhi-ha - or The Imperilled - about a group of men who escaped from a prison in 1979 and then defended the country against an enemy invasion.

At the time, Iran was at war with Iraq. When several hardliners, such as director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, objected to the movie, the era of the ban on Malek-Motiee began.

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While the ban began informally through pressure groups, eventually many of the figures from the groups joined the government and were in charge of setting cultural policies.

For decades, the ban on Malek-Motiee persisted, but he remained in Iran, reportedly working at a candy shop and then later as an estate agent.

In 2013, he acted in the movie Naqsh-e-Negar (Negar's Role) about complications over a romantic relationship – but the Ministry of Culture prohibited the film from being screened for two years because Malek-Motiee was involved.

Eventually, after the efforts of high-profile director and actor Parviz Parastui, the movie was given permission to be screened.

But that didn’t put an end to Malek-Motiee’s ban on Iran’s state TV, controlled by hardliners, which prevented two pre-recorded interviews from being broadcast on its channels in recent years.

'The doors are still closed'

After his death, the divergence in coverage of his life was striking: reformist media outlets praised Malek-Motiee's personality, acting and criticised the ban on him, while conservative media published brief stories about his death and expressed frustration at the attention which he was given.

In a 28 May editorial, the hardline Kayhan newspaper wrote: "Those behind the ban on this actor are now praising him today, and are cursing [everyone] saying, ‘Why didn’t you appreciate him and be kind to him?’”

Mr Malek-Motiee shone in Iran's art scene for many years, but he was silent for the past 40 years, which made us feel sorry, and upset us, but we couldn’t do anything

-Ali Nasirian, actor

In a separate article the following day, Kayhan described Malek-Motiee as "the centre of depravity", highlighting that nudity scenes in film farsi movies wouldn’t even be screened to people under 18 in the US.

Within days of his death, Iranian actors launched their campaign to bring back pre-revolutionary actors.

On 27 May, several well-known artists wrote an open letter to the moderate President Rouhani and, at the president’s annual iftar gathering on 31 May, acclaimed actress Fatemeh Motamed-Aria seized the opportunity, and submitted the letter to the president.

Others used the gathering as a chance to put their challenges directly to Rouhani.

Ali Nasirian, a veteran actor, reportedly said: "Mr Malek-Motiee shone in Iran's art scene for many years, but he was silent for the past 40 years, which made us feel sorry, and upset us, but we couldn’t do anything."

Setareh Eskandari, a theatre actress, addressed the president, saying: "You spoke of dialogue, but the doors are still closed on us and the key is in your hands. We seek solutions and, although we are tired, we aren’t hopeless. We are people, please hear us."

A cinema in Tehran (AFP)
One of the artists they want to bring back to the country is film farsi star Vossoughi.

Two months before the 1979 revolution, Vossoughi, one of the country’s highest profile actors at the time, went to the US to star in a film and, while on set, the revolution took place. He has never returned to Iran, afraid of the consequences.

“Then I thought, it is not a suitable situation to return, and hence, I have stayed [here] until now,” he told Entekhab news site during an interview in 2007.

Despite the campaign, some remain doubtful that change will come. As much as Rouhani might want to lift the ban, the power, they say, lies with the political establishment.

"I think Rouhani as the president has no issue with Vossoughi returning to the country. In fact, he will welcome such a thing happening,” Reza Mardomi, a cultural journalist, told MEE.

“But the problem is that making decisions on this matter is not in the hands of the president. Probably the judiciary and other branches of power are responsible and must decide.”

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Judiciary spokesperson Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei told the Iranian Student News Agency on 29 May that no one is prohibited from entering Iran.

"Whoever is Iranian can enter the country, it is no difference if he is an artist or actor, they face no restriction for coming to the country,” Ejei said.

However, Mohammad-Jafar Montazeri, the attorney general of Iran, reacted negatively to the idea of Vossoughi coming back to the country. 

"No one can stop an Iranian from returning to his homeland,” he said on 5 June. “But if this person has committed a crime, [we] shouldn’t roll a red carpet for him."

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