Like countless others around the world, Sreemoyee Singh fell headlong in love with Iranian cinema. But unlike most others, Singh layered her cinephilia with Persophilia.

Singh began to study Farsi in India, then updated her language skills after travelling to Iran, where she pursued doctoral research on exiled filmmakers in post-revolution Iran. Alongside she made a documentary on Iranian cinema. And, Towards Happy Alleys is the outcome of this remarkable endeavour – a beguiling portrait by an enthusiastic, empathetic observer of a culture torn between severe repression and a yearning for freedom.

The documentary, filmed by Singh herself during several trips to Tehran between 2015 and 2019, involved an “intensive, long process that felt like life itself”, she told Scroll. “These kinds of documentaries grow from life experiences, from being present.”

Singh’s debut directorial effort was premiered in 2023 and shown at the ongoing Mumbai International Film Festival. Following the screening, the 35-year-old Kolkata native addressed queries about her production process. Then she sang a Persian song, in a strong, mellifluous voice.

The song features prominently in Singh’s documentary. She sings more than once: to a crowd of mostly men, to a classroom of girls who sing along despite their teacher’s warning, in a shop on the encouragement of Iranian director Jafar Panahi. As an outsider, Singh has a privilege that is forbidden to Iranian women. While her film explores restrictions on expression, the documentary is equally about the very act of creation, of finding the thread that runs through seemingly disconnected vignettes.

“The language of the film slowly emerged – everything was happening together,” Singh explained. “The first three months led to 60% of the shots used in the film. I was present with my camera and I really followed my gut.”

And, Towards Happy Alleys (2023). Courtesy Sreemoyee Singh.

And, Towards Happy Alleys is a tapestry of themes – an admirer’s tribute to Iranian cinema; the resilience of Iranian directors despite ferocious censorship; the persistence of shared cultural memories; the ways in which women resist strictures on how they should dress, behave and live.

Singh was in Tehran when protests broke out in 2018 against laws requiring women to compulsorily wear the hijab in public. Her film features conversations about the controls placed on women’s bodies. For instance, the Iranian regime bans women from football stadia. This harsh restriction was the subject of Panahi’s Offside (2006), in which a teenager dresses up as a boy to attend a football match. In a moving sequence in Singh’s film, young women at a mall raucously celebrate a football victory alongside men.

Before she went to Iran, Singh’s only knowledge of the country had come from the movies she had seen during a film studies course at Jadavpur University. In particular, Singh was captivated by Forugh Farrokhzad, whose stirring feminist poetry was quoted by many Iranian filmmakers. Farrokhzad also directed the acclaimed documentary The House is Black in 1962, five years before she died.

“The poetry took me,” Singh said. “I wanted to read Forugh’s poetry in the original Farsi. I wanted to go to Iran and see what inspired these filmmakers. Both these things happened to me simultaneously.” Singh’s film includes visits to Farrokhzad’s grave in Tehran, a meeting point for those who mourn the poet as well as Iran’s lost decades.

The allusiveness of poetry has heavily influenced Iranian cinema. Directors such as Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have dazzled the world with their allegorical, political and philosophical explorations of the Iran that flourished before the Islamic Revolution in 1979 replaced the Pahlavi monarchy with a theocracy.

“I wanted to understand how they made their films, and how we too in India can continue making films after so much has changed here,” Singh said.

And, Towards Happy Alleys (2023). Courtesy Sreemoyee Singh.

Academic Hamid Dabashi in his book Makhmalbaf At Large – The Making of a Rebel Filmmaker writes that through 1980s and 1990s, “cinema emerged as the single most socially relevant cultural production, a function almost exclusive to poetry in the decades before the Islamic Revolution”.

“In its elegant simplicity, Iranian cinema conceals a rich poetic resistance to power, and a will or justice,” Dabashi adds. “This cinema is the aesthetic rise of taking a culture to task for all the promises it has given, all the hope that it continues to nourish.”

Panahi, the firebrand director who has endured censorship and arrest, is a sparkling presence in Singh’s documentary. Singh films Panahi while he driving around – a reference to his Taxi Tehran (2015), which he made on the sly after being banned from making films. Through Panahi, Singh meets Aida Mohammadkhani and Mina Mohammadkhani, the sisters who appeared as child actors in Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995) and The Mirror (1997).

Some of Singh’s shot-taking is clearly influenced by Panahi’s poetic realism. “Everything we read and see imprints itself on us,” Singh said. “Besides, because I was so consumed by Iranian cinema and I was also doing a PhD on the subject, the style came organically.”

Jafar Panahi in And, Towards Happy Alleys (2023). Courtesy Sreemoyee Singh.

Singh did not have to expressly ask Panahi if she could film him in his car. “Panahi knew what I wanted – that’s the great thing about working with filmmakers,” she said. “I’m so grateful that we see Panahi as he truly is. I didn’t expect him to be so free and so lively.”

An early sequence makes a nod to Panahi’s The Mirror, in which a young girl being filmed on a bus breaks the illusion created by fiction by telling the director that she doesn’t want to act anymore.

In And, Towards Happy Alleys, Singh too is on a bus, shooting its female commuters. One of them asks Singh, are you filming me? From this point on, the documentary moves beyond observation to include Singh’s growing understanding of her new milieu.

“I am in the hypnosis of cinema,” Singh explained. “I try to make myself invisible. Slowly, the film becomes more verite, as in I become a part of the film.”

The commuter’s intervention was a “reality check”, Singh added. “I could not film people without talking to them. I wanted to keep this moment of understanding in the film itself. After that, the language of the film shifted. The camera became very fluid.”

Sreemoyee Singh.

The time Singh spends with human rights activist Nasrin Sotudeh and experimental filmmaker Mohammad Shirvani broadens the ambit of her film. From a tribute to Iranian cinema, And, Towards Happy Alleys evolves into a meditation on the paradox of creativity amidst intense subjugation.

In a section that is both farcical and terrifying, Shirvani’s conversation with Singh is constantly interrupted by drilling in the house next door. It soon becomes apparent that the drillers are eavesdropping on Shirvani and switch on their machines whenever he broaches a sensitive subject.

“For two hours, we tried to work around the drilling,” Singh recalled. “We got a hang of the timing and used it to tell our own story. This is how Iranian films are made too – nothing is ever easy.”

Among the people she interviewed for her PhD was Mohammad Rasoulof, the dissident director whose films have been banned in Iran, and who was imprisoned alongside Panahi. In May, while on bail, Rasoulof escaped to Europe. His Seed of the Sacred Fig won a special award at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Singh credits her access to the filmmakers to her knowledge of Farsi. “Because of language, the effort, my rootedness and academics, the Iranians gave me their stories, but I think I gave them some of my music,” she said. “So it was truly an exchange.”

She had first studied Farsi in Kolkata, but it proved inadequate. “The Farsi taught in India is from the Mughal period,” she said. “My friends in Tehran told me I had to unlearn everything, from the accents to the vocabulary.”

Even though she did not have any training in filmmaking, Singh not only shot the documentary but also produced it. “I didn’t expect the film to look perfect – I went there knowing that the space was going to teach me how to respond,” she said. “I give the credit to the space that Iran created for me – talking to people, relationships, handling the camera, ethics.”

The documentary was initially self-funded, partly from Singh’s PhD stipend and the money she earned as a lecturer at St Joseph’s College in Bengaluru. And, Towards Happy Alleys took five years to be completed after shooting wrapped up in 2019 because Singh was applying for various production grants.

The 75-minute documentary has been skilfully edited by Joydip Das and Pradyatan Bera, with Jabeen Merchant as consultant editor. “I couldn’t sit with my editors for long periods of time because I was teaching to make ends meet, putting in money when I had it,” Singh said. “For a lot of us making films for the first time, there is no existing ready structure. I am going to be much better in terms of financing and producing on my next film.”

And, Towards Happy Alleys (2023).