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How one Iranian TV show is breaking censorship boundaries

Sold in supermarkets, the private sector-produced "Shahrzad" TV series is turning out to be a serious rival of state-sponsored productions.

In the 1980s, the main form of home entertainment in Iran consisted of two TV channels and two radio stations. For those who were tired of watching or hearing news about the ongoing war with Iraq and sanctions, there was only one source of entertainment: old movies from the time of former Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Despite the danger of being arrested and having to pay a fine or go to jail, people continued to watch videos by renting smuggled and banned VCRs. Media expert Dr. Fereydoun Ahmadvand told Al-Monitor, “One of the reasons videos became so popular among people and ultimately forced a retreat in the state’s position was the need for diversity and the desire to hear several voices and have cultural pluralism, which did not at all exist in Iran during the years of war.”

Home video entertainment is still one of few escapes from the Islamic Republic’s radio and television monopoly. In this vein, many believe that the TV series "Shahrzad," produced by the private sector and distributed mainly through supermarkets, has transformed the boundaries of official censorship in Iran. To be clear: "Shahrzad" is a local, legal production. Its license is issued by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is operating under the supervision of President Hassan Rouhani, and not the state broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).

Some reports in Persian-language media sources have argued that "Shahrzad" is indicative of important political developments in recent years. They believe the series has caught those behind Iran’s censorship off guard — with censors perhaps not realizing its significance.

"Shahrzad" is centered on a love story between two university students and narrated in a historical setting. The story takes place in the early 1950s, amid one of the most important events in the Middle East at that time: the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry. The Aug. 19, 1953, coup d’etat that ousted then-Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh is also highlighted, raising additional interest among Iranians. Although the story unfolds in the context of Mossadegh’s historic efforts to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, many believe that the series is only an excuse to discuss something that is timeless.

However, the truly astonishing aspect of "Shahrzad" is none of the above. A high-budget TV series was a few years ago commissioned to coincide with the anniversary of the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty. Taking years to produce, the first of the 80 episodes of “The Puzzle of the Shah" have been aired on Iranian state television so far. This series tries to depict all those associated with Iran’s former ruler as corrupt. Despite the millions of dollars spent on its production, “The Puzzle of the Shah" is considered a failure.

Mohammad Reza Adineh, a filmmaker and former manager at Iran’s Visual Media Institute, offered Al-Monitor some insight into why shows produced by the private sector are gaining ever greater success: “Comedies and some social taboos like AIDS and extramarital relations were among the controversial topics that were not dealt with on Iranian television, thus enabling this media to become a success. Through supermarkets, they turned these CDs into something that became a part of every family’s shopping basket, just like bread and milk.”

Ahmadvand, the media expert, expanded on the reasons why state-sponsored TV series tend to underperform: “IRIB is continuously using the same common cliches in its programs and insists on repeating them too. Despite the efforts of all the committed producers in IRIB, its closed administrative framework — which dictates specific themes to the artists — has literally choked their creativity over the years.” He added, “If there was private television in Iran, or the restrictions placed on artistic productions like cinema were removed, we would witness better quality work in a more competitive atmosphere.”

The theme song of "Shahrzad," which makes reference to opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi’s house arrest, its love story and its socio-political script, have all helped the series find its way into the homes of Iranians. Composer Behzad Raeisi told Al-Monitor, “'Shahrzad’s' theme song was different in the original version. The final version was rewritten in collaboration with its screenwriter and director Hassan Fathi. The references made to the house arrest and heart ailments [of Mousavi] may have been added to the song at that time. Otherwise, singer Mohsen Chavoshi’s report card shows there has never been a social-political theme in his works.”

Mousavi supporters have even recently made a music video with this theme song. Such insinuations, however, have raised sensitivities among many conservatives in Iran. Conservative media sources have engaged in soft criticism of "Shahrzad," all of which have so far been technical and artistic. Yet, the latter has nevertheless sparked rumors that the conservatives will likely cause problems for those behind "Shahrzad" in the end.

Indeed, the criticisms have gone as far as producer Gholamreza Mousavi claiming that billion-rial home video entertainment series are not cost-effective, and that the intention of those who invest in such series and have no artistic background is to launder money. Hadi Razavi, one of the two investors behind "Shahrzad," has dismissed these remarks, and says he is certain that the series will be a financial success.

There is another important dimension to "Shahrzad." Adineh, the filmmaker, told Al-Monitor, “The fact that the policies of the Ministry of Culture are different from those of IRIB, how its review apparatus functions in a different manner, and the flexibility shown by the government in some areas in order to gain support for it are perhaps not without their effect on the production of more diverse series.” In this vein, journalist Panah Farhadbahman argues in favor of one of the reasons behind the success of "Shahrzad": "On the one hand, the different monitoring entity in this media as opposed to the IRIB, and the lower level of sensitivity that has until now been shown toward home video entertainment compared to radio, television and cinema … has caused home entertainment productions to have a different … tone, from dialogues, to storylines, to the actors’ wardrobes.”

Indeed, most experts appear to stress on the need for today’s young Iranian society to have several voices in culture and the arts. This may be why a series like "Shahrzad" has been successful while other costly, state-sponsored TV series are not receiving the welcome they could.

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