The Blood Of Hussain (and Towers of Silence): ” a mesmerising piece of cinema”

Jamil Dehlavi’s The Blood of Hussain is an allegorical tale of revolt against tyranny and oppression in 1970s Pakistan.  It takes place during the annual mourning procession for Hussain, grandson of the prophet Muhammad,  who was slain for his refusal to recognise Yazid ibn Muawiya, the Umayyad Caliph, as his leader at the 7th century Battle of Karbala. Accurately described by Dehlavi as ‘an abstract essay on tyranny’, it tells the story of two brothers (both played by actor Salmaan Peerzada) who find themselves on opposing sides in a bloody military coup d’état. Salim is an economist and urbane product of the West; married to an Englishwoman, Katherine (Kika Markham), he is recruited by the new regime unaware that his bride is having a surreptitious affair with Zahid (Dehlavi himself), a colonel in the military. In contrast, his brother, the eponymous Hussain, is a man of the people; working the family farm among peasants he treats as equals rather than servants, he has never forgotten an incident from his youth, when an elderly mystic revealed to him that he will one day lead the people. As martial law takes hold across the country, Hussain fulfills his prophecy to become a champion of the oppressed and a martyr just like his namesake.

Dehlavi mixes the political with the mystical to create a symbolic and lyrical landmark in the Third Cinema movement of the 1970s. The closest comparison I can conjure up is the work of Tarkovsky, and indeed the tale of peasants against a corrupt and tyrannical ruling class is one that resonates greatly in Russian literature. Alongside his cinematographer Walter Lassally, Dehlavi creates images that burn themselves into your retina in much the same way as the Soviet auteur managed. Take, for instance, the sight of a beautiful white stallion, rising up seemingly from beneath the dusty arid earth, or the masochistic fervour of the Muharram ritual of self-flagellation that occur on the teeming city streets. There’s a poetic and surreal quality to how Dehlavi chooses to visualise his narrative that makes what is, on the surface at least, a traditional tale of good versus evil a striking and metaphorical arthouse production.

As a film, The Blood of Hussain not only called back to the past it proved to be remarkably prescient too. During post-production in 1977, Pakistan’s democratically elected government was overthrown by General Zia-ul-Haq’s military junta and the prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was promptly executed. Aware that reality now mirrored the events of his film, Dehlavi fled to the UK to finish the production and gain a distribution deal that secured the film’s release in 1980, some three years after it had been filmed. Unsurprisingly the Pakistani government banned the film, a decision that remains in place to this very day.  It also remains deeply controversial with many Islamic groups who believe the film to be blasphemous and likely to incite tensions between Shias and Sunnis for its contemporary depiction of Hussain’s assassination. Released by the BFI, this is a chance to view a mesmerising piece of cinema on its own terms.

Also included in the BFI release is Dehlavi’s 1975 short film Towers of Silence, an avant-garde semi-autobiographical reading of the contradictory relationship of the Zoroastrian and Muslim faiths. It tells the abstract story of a Western woman’s relationship with a murdered revolutionary and her concerns for their infant child. At its heart is the Zoroastrian funeral rite which sees corpses laid to rest atop the titular towers, where their bones are picked clean by vultures, just one example of a menagerie of animals who appear throughout and have various contrasting meanings across both religions. Shot in black and white, Towers of Silence possesses an experimental and hazy dreamlike style that lingers long in the memory.


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