The Salesman: A multi-layered morality play


A key element in Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman reminded me of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s 1970 Hindi film, Dastak (The Knock) about a newly-wed lower middle couple (Sanjeev Kumar and Rehana Sultan) unwittingly renting a flat in a red light district, previously occupied by a nautch girl, and unable to bear with the persistent knocks on the door by her mistaken patrons. As they battle with the cherished notions of virtue, honour, decency and respect as against insolent sexuality, Bedi questions the very edifice of morality on which our society is built. How artificial is the line that is drawn to separate propriety from profligacy and how, at times, it can get inescapable to keel over to the other side.

It’s a similar moral web that Farhadi weaves in The Salesman. But in his telling he keeps the touch of a thriller within the overall frame of family and domesticity seen in his previous films—A Separation and The Past. There is a lingering sense of suspense. A couple—Emad and Rana (Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti)—moves into a flat whose previous tenant was allegedly a prostitute. One fine day an intruder assaults Rana. Who is the culprit? Much as we wonder about it, we soon realise that it’s not important. What the act does to the relationship is of consequence—how it tears the couple asunder. Rana tries desperately to recover from the trauma, wants to move on even as she fights her worst fears but Emad is consumed by vengeance and goes on an investigation of his own to track down the stranger. In an ethical battleground of a finale Farhadi turns things grippingly topsy turvy. As he pitches family against family, revenge against forgiveness, fear against peace and composure we find that soon enough the difference between right and wrong, the criminal and the victim begins to get obfuscated.

There is the backdrop of rehearsals for a performance of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman that serves as an interesting counterpoint to the familial situation. Emad gets as unstable as the role he is playing, that of Willy Loman. If Loman is brought down by success, rather the lack of it, in the case of Emad it’s to do with failure of another kind—his male pride and ego hurt by the violation of his woman. Like Linda, the role she is playing, Rana is the voice of empathy. But will it stem the collapse in their world, will the intimacy survive the upheaval? Ever so subtly Farhadi shows that Emad and Rana are as much victims of patriarchal expectations and societal role playing as they are of an unknown assailant.

The Salesman is a morality play of sorts, a characteristically complex, many-layered film—about individuals grappling with themselves and their moral dilemmas, about a marriage in a state of renegotiation and a family in the throes of crisis. It’s this state of human flux that makes it universal. Despite the specificity of modern-day Iran, The Salesman can transpire anywhere, any time. After all dysfunctional families, messy relationships and marriages on the verge of breakdown can’t be confined either by national boundaries or time zones.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 10:03:42 PM |

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