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Why Iranians are turning against Leonardo DiCaprio

29.06.2016 08:28

Hollywood will soon roll out a biopic about 13th-century Persian poet and scholar Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi. Oscar-winning screenwriter David Franzoni, who wrote the script for the 2000 blockbuster "Gladiator," will be working on the film in collaboration with Turkey, reports.


Known in Iran as Molana (Our Master) or Molavi (My Master) and in the West as Rumi, Balkhi was born in the city of Balkh in present-day Afghanistan, which then was part of the Persianate Khwarezmian Empire.


The announcement of the upcoming biopic has already stirred controversy. The casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as the Persian poet has sparked an outcry centered on charges of "whitewashing" — especially in Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan, all of which claim Rumi as their national poet.


Talebinejad referred to the book "Rumi: The Fire of Love" by acclaimed writer Nahal Tajadod, which tells the story of Rumi’s life, and said, “It’s not clear how much of this story is rooted in reality. However, it portrays Molana as a unique individual. This is exactly how the public sees him, and in this context, perhaps the people in Hollywood also have a right to make a film about him.”


A child at the time, Rumi and his family fled Balkh during the Mongol invasion and traveled through Baghdad, Mecca and Damascus before settling in Konya, which is located in present-day Turkey. Molana taught Islamic theology until his late 30s when he met Shams of Tabriz, a Persian mystic who transformed his life and became the source of inspiration behind Rumi’s epic collection of poetry.


It is said that the meeting between the two lasted for 40 days, during which Shams taught Rumi in seclusion. Later, Rumi wrote thousands of verses expressing his spiritual love for Shams, which are collected in two masterpieces of Persian poetry: "Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi" ("The Teachings of Shams of Tabriz") and "Masnavi-e Manavi" ("Rhyming Couplets of Deep Spiritual Meaning").


Iranian journalist and film critic Reza Sedigh told Al-Monitor he thinks that Hollywood producers are not capable of understanding the true relationship between Rumi and Shams. He said, “Perhaps a figure such as [medieval Persian poet] Omar Khayyam might have been of more interest for Hollywood, since his poems and manner are closer to modern times. For instance, Khayyam said, 'Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.' So when faced with the question of why Hollywood has gone after Molana: Do Western producers comprehend Eastern mysticism? What understanding do they have of Masnavi [one of Rumi’s most prominent works of poetry]? And can they reach the necessary understanding [of these things]? Unfortunately, the answer is 'no.'”


But what image do the film’s producers have of the Persian poet? In an interview with The Guardian, Franzoni said, “He’s like a Shakespeare. He’s a character who has enormous talent and worth to his society and his people, and obviously resonates today. Those people are always worth exploring.”