Among the films competing for the Best International Film award at the ongoing International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, Iranian film Hadji Sha (Shiftegi) perhaps stands out most with its different theme, and an equally different structure. Pitted aganst films such as The Owners, A Thousand Rupee Note, A Short Story, Timbuktu and Genuine Love, Hadji Shah's 'difference' may be its biggest undoing, but it will definitely earn a lot of respect among film buffs.
Director Zamani Esmati's film is yet another example of excellence in cinematic sensibilities Iranian films have come to be known for all over the world of late. A string of films from this part of the world have been winning over new territories. Their subtle depiction of relationships, and the conflicts inside the human mind make them not-to-be-missed chapter on social behaviour and much more. On the face of it, you may think these films have simple story lines, but look deeper and you'll realise that they manage to communicate about the most complex social issues with the audience. Hadji Sha has done it once again.
The film revolves around a 50-year-old woman Hadji Sha (Roya Teimoorian) who has been living under the disguise of a man for 30 years: In order to become the man of the house, she has changed her lifestyle and appearance though she doesn't have her own family. She considers her sister's family her own and thus she becomes furious when it is revealed that her sister's mentally unstable granddaughter has been raped. Sha is now determined to find the culprit but this could be anyone including one of her family members.
The description so far would have made it very clear to you that the film is multi-layered and it's a documentation of the contemporary socio-cultural structure of the Persian region. Hadji Sha (Spoken as Haji Shah) is a woman fighting against a male dominated society and thus she is over-protective of her sister and other family members, especially the female ones. She is a known face in the neighbourhood and people admire her for the fighting spirit. In fact, people are terrified of her. For example, Sha doesn't think too highly of her sister's son-in-law, and strongly suspects him to be the culprit. The son-in-law is a fit, young man, but he doesn't hold any chance against the feisty Sha.
However, Sha is not an easy to explain woman as her character has many shades. One of them is also of a lover who wants to bury her face in the coat of her beloved and forget about the worries of the world. She is defying every norm of the region despite knowing the fact that people behind her back make fun of her. There are many in the locality who thinks that Sha is a transgender but she is simply unperturbed.
Sha strikes a powerful bonding with a girl who lives in a rented house in her building. She doesn't have any direct connection with Hadji Sha but both of them have something in common. They both deny obeying the rules that stops them from doing something they love. The girl is a singer who can't put her name on the cover of her solo album as producing music is illegal in the area. Though she is ready to be punished for her passion, the administration is simply hell bent on making her art look like a job sans any respect. The two women come together and a lot of eyebrows raise but it's a healing support system for both of them and thus they continue with it.
A point comes when Hadji Sha realises the need to pass on the baton to the next generation but she has been doing the same drill for so long that it makes her uncomfortable. The woman inside Sha's heart keeps pushing for a married life but her conscience isn't convinced.
The Iranian society is full of clichés and offers tough co-existence for different genders. Probably Sha determined to live on her own terms the moment she left her home and arrived in a new city with her little sister, whom she never let go near men. This guarded approach towards men has turned Sha into a control freak woman who doesn't see any need of striking a cordial chord with the men.
It's not dark but focussed enough to give you a hint about the forceful existence of good people in the new world. It's not a direct fight but there is always a sense of clash between the two genders. It's not any noir but intense enough to bring out the wrong side of the human psyche. With many sub-texts and one dominant central theme, Hadji Sha is likely to give the other films in the category a tough fight for the big award.