[2021-11-21] “Persepolis”

Persepolis” is a biographical graphic-novel by Marjane Satrapi that was later adapted into a much-awarded eponymous film. The book (and the film) are poignant tales of coming-of-age and self-discovery of a woman, which is drawn in a simple, but effective style. I got to read the book as well as watch the film this weekend and I would categorize both as “good, but not great”, despite all the hype accompanying the release of the film.

The book is actually a combination of two parts that were published separately earlier – “The Story Of A Childhood” and “The Story Of A Return”. Each part comprises many episodes from the life of the protagonist as she grows up in Iran at the time of the Iranian Revolution as well as the subsequent Iran-Iraq war, leaves it for a while to study in Austria, comes back and gets married, and finally gets divorced and leaves it once again to start a new life in France. You get a glimpse of the lives of ordinary Iranians, especially women, as they cope with the oppression of both the old and the new regimes, as well as the devastating effects of a prolonged war and exploitation by western super-powers.

The book in general is quite depressing and revealing, even if you have had some exposure to the subject before, though it ends on a happy note for the protagonist. The author shows how people cope with disasters and tyranny, even managing to have some fun while surrounded by gloom. You get to see life from the viewpoint of a little girl and a woman forced to live within an overwhelmingly patriarchical and oppressive society under the control of Isamlic fundamentalists. In particular, it shows how the constant moral-policing by the so-called “Guardians Of The Revolution” made the life of young Iranians, and especially young women, close to a living hell.

While reading the book, you cannot help but realize that the protagonist is also very lucky in so many ways. She has politically-active parents and relatives who are extremely supportive of her and manage to pull the strings many a time to help her out and to protect her. They seem to be relatively well-off (though not very rich) and could afford to send her to study in Austria and support her financially. In Austria, she could afford to be kicked out of her boarding-school and still finds a place to live with supportive friends. She embarks on a journey of self-destruction and subsequent recovery and is accepted back unquestioningly by her loving parents. She falls in and out of love several times, marries one of her lovers in Iran, and is able to divorce him relatively easily. This undercurrent of privilege is present throughout the book, but thankfully does not prevent it from being an insightful and poignant read. The stories still come across as an honest retelling of events and the people involved.

The film is largely faithful to the book, even in its black-and-white and simply-drawn animation-style. It uses several cinematic techniques to enliven some of the episodes from the book (my favorite being the one where little Marji pretends to be Bruce Lee and troubles one of her cousins at a party, retracting in style when scolded by her Dad). There are also some scenes added to the film that are missing from the book. However, the film rushes through some episodes from the book and also mixes things up (e.g. an adaptation of the Pieta drawn by the protagonist in an art-class in the book ends up as a mural on street in the film). You can appreciate the film properly only if you have read the book first.

The most damning change from the book made by the film, in my opinion, involves something like a “Han shot first”. In the episode “The Makeup” in the book, the protagonist wrongly accuses an innocent man minding his own business of saying something indecent to her in order to escape a capture and a fine by the moral police (because she was wearing makeup). The man is then arrested (and possibly tortured) by the moral police and the protagonist gets to go home. The protagonist considers this a fun way of having escaped the moral police, until her grandmother chides her for it. In the film however, this man is shown to be leching at her first, which makes him not-so-innocent after all and reduces her guilt somewhat. I did not appreciate this meddling by the film-maker as it materially changes the import of the story.

On the whole, the book is better than the film, but I would still recommend that you read the book first and then watch the film to complement the experience. Even if you cannot find the film or do not have the inclination to watch it, at least read the book as it is quite good and a must-read in my view.

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