January 4, 2013 By K Shabin Muhammed

The Willow Tree: A saga of sight and insight

In his Mathnawi, Rumi tells the story of a lover who goes to his beloved and knocks on the door: The beloved from behind the door asked: “Who is at the door?” The lover answered: ‘I.’ Disappointed, the beloved said. “Go away! It is not the proper time! Here is no place for such a raw fellow!” After several years of reflection, the lover returned and knocked at the door again. The beloved asked: ‘Who is at the door?’ This time the lover responded: ‘You! The one on this side of the door is also you!’ And it was then that the beloved opened the door, and said: ‘Now it is the time! There is no room in the house for two ‘Is.’ Now that you have been transformed to me, and nothing left of that ‘I’ you may come in. If you want to rejoin the beloved, you must abandon your “false self.” This “false self” for Rumi is the human condition in which he has become separated from the Real. Then only one can see his love, God and his soul, and enjoy his life as it is. The Is and Yous will remain arrogant, spiritually diseased and ignorant of their true existence. They will live as if they were ended up in a desert. Rumi advocated this spiritual love and existence throughout his works.

The Willow Tree (Beed-e-Majnoon) released in 2005 is a sad, soulful but powerful film by Majid Majidi which borrows the quintessential of Rumi’s philosophy and the world renowned texts from Mathnawi, it is a simple, yet eloquent tale with stunning imagery. Majid Majidi, arguably one of the best film directors on the globe has successfully challenged the task of interpreting the highly metaphorical literature of Mathnawi into an adorable film with The Willow Tree.

Seeing with eyes is entirely different from seeing without eyes. The winner is one who can see the light of his inner self with his insights. The film has superbly presented this highly complex state of human with existence.

The protagonist of the film is Youssef, a blind professor who teaches Persian literature in Tehran University. Rumi and Mathnawi are his favourite subjects. He is blessed with the insight to see and experience his aged mother, lovable child and beloved wife. He touches the hearts of his students in the class and speaks with nature with much ease. He lives in a paradise with joy and peace and he makes regular, lengthy conversations with God.

Youssef lost his sight due to an accident when he was eight years old. Since then he had lived more than three decades getting on with the earthly difficulties and struggles. He was quiet fortunate to get insight from this time that was enough to move on in life. Yet he was exhausted by the way he became isolated from others who were not physically handicapped and lived in a sound atmosphere. Youssef deals rationally with his disability but inwardly gets discontented with God. On a day he becomes diagnosed with a tumor beneath his right eye, and finally goes to Paris in a bid to undergo surgery which may give him his sight back. Just before he leaves, Youssef writes a note to God and puts it between the pages of a volume of the Mathnawi,

The note says:

“I’m the one you deprived of the beauties of the world and who never complained. Instead of light and brightness, I lived in darkness and gloom and I didn’t protest. I found happiness and peace in this small paradise. Are all these years of suffering not enough that you now want to cause me even more suffering? Will I come back from this trip to my loving family? Will this illness bring me to my knees? To whom should I complain about what you are doing to me? I beg of you to show me more compassion. Don’t take my life away.”

As if in answer to his prayers, Youssef gets back his sight, a miracle that becomes double edged and counterproductive in the end. The night before his bandages are to be removed, Youssef lifts them gently and realizes that he can see. He watches an ant carrying a morsel of food across the window ledge. When he knows that he is not blind anymore, he giggles with excitement at his good fortune as he hobbles down the hallway without needing anyone else to help him along.

After the surgery and cornea replantation, Youssef returns to Tehran. At the airport, a crowd of well-wishers welcome him with gifts on their hands. Many of them were closest to him whom he has never seen: his wife and daughter, his students and friends from the University. He does recognize his mother in a brilliant frame where audience gets an insight. But it was Pari, his uncle’s pretty daughter who attracted him the most. He becomes stunned by her beauty and can’t get her out of his mind. At home, however Youssef makes contact with familiar objects in his study and tries to figure out what to do with himself. He simply forgets or avoids his wife, who throughout their marriage has been his caretaker. Nevertheless he becomes tempted and manipulated by the colourful life around him, abandons his insight and tries to move on reckless.

The movie has two parts: Youssef’s life with insight; Youssef reclaiming his sight. In the first phase Youssef recognizes his inner self and insight and feels the necessity and intimacy of family, friends and students. Majid Majidi captures the emotions and thoughts of Youssef with explicit blend of Sufi metaphors from Rumi’s Mathnawi. In the beginning even though he was completely blind, Youssef had the ecstasy of living in a peaceful ambience and he saw God every day. The willow tree becomes so endeared for him. Director reflects the gestures and movements of a middle aged man with a mystical character very precisely and meticulously.  Audio often excels visuals in imparting the feelings of a blind man to spectators.

Symbolic representation is the peculiarity of Majid Majidi films. Each of his acclaimed movies is known for their rich and explicit use of imagery. In The Willow Tree, ant is an important symbol. Youssef opens his eyes after three decades to a scene where an ant is moving besides the window with a piece of food. This is a minute frame. In Mathnawi, ant is symbolized as human spirit and the morsel of food as his body. When Youssef sees it, he fails to see the ant from the food. He becomes arrogant and self-centered, betrayed by the so called values of beauty, wealth and power. There are lot of scenes in the movie that show the transition of Youssef from an innocent, spiritually enlightened man to an insomniac who is longing for a beautiful lady. He loses his way to home for the first time in life, he can’t recognize his uncle’s daughter with her voice. He ridicules his matured wife as he feels that she is not beautiful. However, she exudes such a warmth in the movie that we feel she is the most beautiful women in the movie. The thunder and lightning frightens him and he becomes excited by colour of gold. All these scenes are revelations from Rumi’s Mathnawi.

Gradually Youssef becomes completely insane and thirsts for God’s mercy. He falls down in a rainy night and throws away the holy book going crazy. Every one of his circle becomes sympathetic towards mad Youssef and avoids him or hates him. Finally Youssef loses his sight forever in the end of the film. But he gets back his insight as it was in the beginning. This is pictured in the film by a symbol of yet another ant which walks on the pages of Mathnawi without morsel of food which means the spirit alone. God is always forgiving the repentant.

Youssef is a symbol, a man who once owned insight, not sight, then gets back sight while losing the insight. Spirit is more significant than the body. Majid Majidi has superbly conveyed this beautiful message from Jelaludin Rumi’s Mathnawi.

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