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Since much of what is printed in newspapers these days comprises doom and gloom,

one conditions oneself to read them with a modicum of detachment and indifference.
It’s a nasty world out there; and it would be prudent not to let it affect you
personally. However, I found myself unable to be indifferent to the news item
about Parsis (Zoroastrians) – in India and abroad - being up in arms over the
unflattering portrayal of ancient Persians in the recently released movie ‘300’.

As a Parsi myself, I could not help experiencing a feeling of smug superiority,


every time I read a news report about some Muslim cleric issuing a fatwa over some
perceived blasphemy; or a Hindu mob going on a rampage over the desecration of a
statue. Thank goodness, we are not like that, I thought. We Parsis are a tolerant
race, with the ability to brush off perceived insults; and even to laugh at our
peculiarities. Hence, it is disheartening to realize that some of us, at least,
are cast in the same mould as those we deride.

If the entire issue wasn’t so pathetic, it would be laughable. The cause of all
this brouhaha is a B-grade action flick, whose only selling point is bloody gore
and mindless violence. Movies of this genre demand that the protagonists be
divided into heroes and villains – there are no shades in between. In the battle
of Thermopylae, the Persians were the vanquished. That is a historical fact.
Naturally, they were cast as the bad guys – and vilified accordingly – some would
say, to excess.

Not surprisingly Parsi ‘spokesmen’ have chimed in with their penny’s worth. A
self-proclaimed Messiah of Bombay Parsis has seen fit to impart a portentous
history lesson to the supposedly ignorant. A US-based Parsi reads political
overtones – America’s present antagonism towards Iran – into the film’s bias.

The Iranians, of course, are having a field propaganda day. ‘300’ is being
slammed as a US government-funded project to prepare Americans for the war against
Iran. It’s a different mater that no one in Iran has seen the movie; but everyone
seems to know about it. And everybody - housewives, teenagers, and ministry clerks
– is shaking with fury. The movie has generated so much agitation in Tehran that
it is one of the rare things that most people agree upon in that country.

Some are generating an e-mail petition against the film and hoping to get half of
Tehran on board. The more scholarly are brushing up on the history of the
Achaemenid Empire; noting that Herodotus had estimated the Persian army at 120,000
men - not one million, as the film claimed. The Iranian media has taken up arms
against the movie as well, with a newspaper headline reading “300 against 70
million!” (Iran’s population). One evening newspaper had this headline “Hollywood
has opened a new front in the war against Iran.”

Intentional or not, the timing of the computer-generated film - which depicts the
ancient confrontation of Sparta and the Persian empire at the Battle of
Thermopylae - could not have been more inflammatory. It was released on the eve of
Nowruz, the Persian New Year, celebrating the Spring Equinox - not a particularly
welcome season to be portrayed as ferocious, pillaging, deranged savages. And it
has come as a godsend to the ruling clerics. Many ordinary Iranians are pretty
pissed off at their government, but this movie has providentially offered common
cause against the Great Satan. A government spokesman has declared the film to be
a fabrication and an insult. There is a delicious irony here. The Achaemenid king
– portrayed as a fall guy in the film – was a Zoroastrian; in other words one of
those infidels that the Islamic rulers regard with scorn.

Nonetheless, many Iranians view the Achaemenid Empire as a particularly noble page
in their history; and cannot understand why it has been singled out for such
shoddy cinematic treatment. The Persians are shown in rags and their Great King
practically naked and a monster. Historically, the Achaemenid kings wrote the
world’s earliest recorded human rights declaration, and were opposed to slavery
(so they were the good guys). Cuneiform plates show that their ancient capital,
Persepolis, was built by paid staff, rather than slaves – as was customary in
those days. And its preserved relief’s depict court dress of velvet robes, which
proves that, if anyone was wearing rags around 500 B.C, it wasn’t the Persians.

For heaven’s sake, people! ‘300’ is an out an out violent movie that caters to the
least common denominator. Its target audience would not recognize history if it
got slapped in the face with it – nor would it care. Why are we giving it such
undue importance, instead of treating it with the contempt it deserves?

And to my fellow Parsis, I would say: do not got provoked by such nonsense and
leave the ‘religious scholars’ be in their self-delusional ivory towers. Nowruz is
coming up soon. Let us go and see a Parsi comedy and have a hearty meal.
Zoroastrianism is a joyous and tolerant religion. Let us keep it that way.