Exploration of the profound through the quotidian, a docufiction style of narrative or examining child psyche… these are some of the recurrent motifs that come to mind when one talks of Iranian cinema. Think Song of Sparrows, The White Balloon, Where is the Friend’s Home and many more… To that end our film of the month breaks convention. Some extraordinary incidents at the very outset and the viewer is sucked into the life of protagonist, filmmaker Bahman Farjami (played by the director himself). On his way to the cemetery- to be with his wife on her fifth death anniversary- he meets a young woman with a still born baby, then at the cemetery he discovers the plot beside his wife’s grave- which he had reserved for himself- had already been taken up and on being confronted, the cemetery staff says dryly that Tehran is becoming so over populated that soon ‘ten level’ graves would be required. On his way back, he realizes that the young woman had left her dead foetus behind. The smell of death, decay and ruin is almost a tangible presence, an imposing, overpowering presence, right from the opening act of the film, divided into three acts. The young woman in the black shroud, whom we see in the rear view mirror of Bahman’s car, is almost a throwback to the Grim Reaper of The Seventh Seal.
And then it’s not just about a day but about lives that become barren. After the Revolution of 1979, Bahman hasn’t received a go ahead to make a film for 24 years. He says more than death, what he is afraid of is a futile life. For if a filmmaker cannot make films or a writer cannot write, what else is death? With nothing to look forward to, Bahman takes up the offer of making a documentary on funeral arrangements in Iran and in a way it is also his passage towards the inevitable. He meets actors who have been banned, technicians who look after tea houses and another despondent and nostalgic journey begins… Intercut with documentary style footage of rituals, sermons, Bahman reminisces about his wife, his mother who can’t recognize him anymore… But just when the smell of camphor (that is rubbed on the dead and hence a smell that Bahman dreads) becomes all too pervasive, there is a sharp yet seamless turn.
In an astute nod to Fellini, Bahman dreams his own death, the death he had been scripting. But the flowers he detested adorn his room, the mourners are in black, the same people who hadn’t protested when he wasn’t allowed to make a film, even the termeh used to cover his body is not the one he had bought. He can’t call the shots anymore. So faced with a dead end, where do you go back, what do you re-visit? The fragrance of jasmine, the sweet perfume of your mother…the beauty and the joy of living. To keep striving, engaging even when all the odds are stacked against you…
Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine is not only an autobiographical film (Bahman Farmanara too faced censorship) but what stands out is its honesty, the simplicity of its message. On one level, as we read the obits of MF Hussain, it is not just enough to mourn his loss but to constantly celebrate what is brushed out of the frame and on the other, it is an ode to life in all its shades.