Editor's note: From Tuesday, 22 November 2016, Firstpost is carrying Rupleena Bose's daily dispatches from the ongoing International Film Festival of India, in Goa
There are things that attach itself to being a tenant.
We make homes and inhabit spaces that are owned by someone else. We live with scraps left behind by people. And sometimes even in their absence, we share a house with them and struggle to make it exclusively ours. But the scraps never leave us, they threaten to disturb every inch of comfort and harmony that we have carefully built in our lives.
This is something that happens to Emad and Rana in Asghar Farhadi’s new film The Salesman (also known as Forushande) We are thrown into their middle class home when the building they live is about to collapse. With them, we are in the street now with a desperate need to find a new place to live without the fear of finding bodies in the rubble. From here unfolds a stunning drama leaving Emad, Rana and the audience breathless for a moral resolution till the end.
The city is Tehran and the houses (particularly the one that Emad and Rana move into following their evacuation from the old cracking building) reminds you of India and the cities we live in. They lead fairly busy lives. Emad is a schoolteacher. They are a married couple and a part of an amateur theatre group performing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. They are Willy Loman and Linda in the play, defeated and steadily moving towards a tragedy through their choices.
Even while their shows and rehearsals continue, a fellow cast member helps them find a terrace apartment. Almost as if speaking too soon, Emad says, "I think for once we have been lucky". They are told that the previous tenant was a woman who left her belongings and has refused to collect them. They adjust, making space for their things living with the past of the house. A day after they move in, Emad has to stay for yet another censorship visit of their play and Rana comes back home. She does everything middle class couples do when they move in: she claims her space and makes it home. Except, in a moment — everything changes.
The buzzer rings and thinking it is Emad back home, she leaves the door open and goes for her shower. Soon after, Emad returns to see patches of blood on the stairs leading up to his house. He finds out from his neighbours who rush Rana to the hospital that she was attacked in the shower by an unknown man; a possible client who thought the house was still inhabited by the previous tenant, ‘a woman of many male acquaintances’.
In middle class urban spaces, making a home where one is free and secure is not easy especially for women. From then on two journeys begin; Rana’s to make sense of the violation of her space, and Emad’s to find a way to assert his masculinity and his failure to be the protector. They struggle and make choices, they don’t go to the police. It is never clear what exactly happened in the attack — only a hint that if she hadn’t smashed her own head, things could have been worse. For Rana, silence is the only possibility, she refuses the humiliation and questions of what happened to her by not talking, to the cast members, to the neighbours or to the police. Emad, on the other hand, in his heroic role-play tries to find the man who entered his house and eventually he does.
In the end, in trying to erase and correct the memory of the attack, they scar themselves with an event that entangles them with the life of the intruder. As they shuttle between their empty flat in a building that promises to collapse any moment and their temporary home where Rana fears being alone, you know the characters are heading towards an irrevocable loneliness. There is clash of class and morality. And when Emad plays the morally superior man seeking a kind of a revenge on the attacker through humiliation, you know they will never be same people again.
The Salesman won the Best Screenplay and Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Farhadi has his way with realism, his stories unfold in a way that suspense is redefined as it is in this film where till the end the audience wonders where such a story will end if at all. The film ends, leaving us in a strange ambiguous position where you know all the characters are bound together by the strand of humiliation. It leaves you to wonder about the path taken by both the protagonist and the intruder in a film where the subtext is clearly about morality in men and women.
Read part one of the Iffi Diary here.
The writer is assistant professor at the department of English at Sri Venkateswara College