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Mahdi Ivanov (Rusi Khan)

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Mahdi Ivanov (Rusi Khan)


Mahdi (Rusi Khan) Ivanov was born in Tehran on 15 October 1875 of Russian Tatar and British parentage, although historians have provided contradictory accounts of his parents nationality.1Some scholars have claimed that his father was Russian Tatar and his mother was British, while others have asserted the opposite. Hamid Naficy has attended to his disputed genealogy in A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 1897-1941 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 63. Yahya Zukaʾ has also cast doubt on his first name, Mahdi, claiming that fellow historian Farrokh Gaffary had wrongly attributed it to him with others in turn following Gaffary’s example.2Zukaʾ has suggested that Gaffary had mistakenly attributed to Ivanov the first name of Ivanov’s photography studio partner, Mahdi Mirza Musavvar al-Molk. See Tārīkh-i ʿakkāsī va ʿakkāsān-i pīshgām dar Īrān (Tehran: Shirkat-i Intishārāt-i ʿIlmī va Farhangī, 1997), 146. Iranian cinephiles have, in any case, best remembered Ivanov by the laqab or title that Mohammad ʿAli Shah Qajar (r. 1907-1909) had given him, presumably in reference to his familial and social ties to Russia: Rusi Khan.3Sayyid Kazim Musavi, Faridun Jayrani, and Farrukh Ghaffari, Asnādī barā-yi tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān: Guftigū bā Farrukh Ghaffārī, ed. Saʿid Mustaqasi (Tehran: Agah Sazan, 2009), 80n12. Ivanov stamped this title on the back of his photographs (Zoka, Tārīkh-i ʿakkāsī va ʿakkāsān-i pīshgām dar Īrān, 146).

Like cinema pioneers Mirza Ibrahim Sahhafbashi Tihrani (1858-1921 or 2) and Mirza Ibrahim Rahmani ʿAkkasbashi (1874-1915), Ivanov first came to film-making and exhibition via photography. Their knowledge of this earlier and closely associated technology was itself a product of their connections to Qajar court personalities or institutions like the government-run Dar al-Funūn (House of Arts and Sciences) polytechnic. Photography in Iran at the turn of the century had retained strong associations with the Qajar elite. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the royal court would also play a pivotal role in cinemas arrival and cultivation. There was little in the way of an indigenous middle class that could support a domestic film industry or exhibition infrastructure of any scale. Consequently, early cinema and cinema-going was the nearly exclusive preserve of the Qajar aristocracy and foreign expatriates. Muzaffar al-Din Shah (r. 18971907) had ordered ʿAkkasbashi as his court photographer to purchase a Gaumont motion picture camera during his first trip to Europe in 1900.4Farrokh Gaffary, “Cinema, i. History of Cinema in Persia,” Encyclopedia Iranica, Sahhafbashi Tihrani had likewise received the Shahs permission to import a film projector from France and, in May 1897, he hosted the first public screenings in the courtyard of his antique shop on Tehran’s Lālihzār Street before opening Irans first cinema hall on Chirāgh Gāz (now Amīr Kabīr) Street a few years later in November 1904.5Farrokh Gaffary, “Coup d’œil sur les 35 premières années du cinema en Iran,” in Entre l’Iran et l’Occident: adaptation et assimilation des idées et techniques occidentales en Iran, ed. Yann Richard (Paris: Fondation de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 1989), 227. Charyrar Adle has disputed this opening date and argued that Sahhafbashi Tihrani’s cinema could have opened no earlier than 1905 and no later than 1908. See: “Acquaintance with Cinema and the First Steps of Filming and Filmmaking in Iran,” trans. Claude Karbassi, Tavoos Quarterly 5 & 6 (Autumn 2000-Winter 2001): 184. Sahhafbashi Tihranis cinema remained open for only a month, with historians variously attributing the closing to clerical objections to cinema-going (notably Shaykh Fazl Allah Nuris famous edict against the cinema), the courts heavy-handed reaction to Sahhafbashi Tihranis support for the constitutionalist movement, as well as more mundane economic troubles.6Jamal Umid invokes all three reasons for Sahhafbashi’s failure in Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357 (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Rawzanah, 1998), 23. However, Tehran did not remain without a cinema hall for long, with court allies like Ivanov stepping into the fray. Historians have even speculated that Ivanov may have concluded from Sahhafbashi Tihranis ill-fated venture that the only way to succeed in the film exhibition business at this time was to cultivate the royal court’s favor.7 See, for example, ʿAbbas Baharlu, Sad chihrih-ʾi sīnamā-yi Īrān (Tehran: Nashr-i Qatrih, 2002), 13.

Ivanov had as a youth become an apprentice to ʿAbd Allah Mirza Qajar (1850-1908 or 9), a cousin (once removed) of Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896), who served the monarch and his successor Muzaffar al-Din Shah in a variety of capacities but mainly as a photographer.8Zukaʾ, Tārīkh-i ʿakkāsī va ʿakkāsān-i pīshgām dar Īrān, 146. Ivanov eventually graduated from darkroom technician to become a court photographer. In early January 1907, Mohammad ʿAli Shah ascended to the throne and, under the protection of the Cossack Brigade and Russia, sought to undo the recently ratified constitution and re-assert monarchical power. When ʿAbd Allah Mirza received the title of `Akkasbashi from Mohammad ʿAli Shah, Ivanov soon thereafter struck out on his own and opened a photography studio on Tehrans ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlih (subsequently Firdawsī) Street.9 Umid has provided an opening date of after the Persian New Year in March 1907 in Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 25. Concurrently, and presumably with court approval, he began dabbling in film exhibition. At a ceremony that winter in honor of the crown prince Ahmad Mirza, two unknown Russians had held a two-hour screening of two films (most likely a concatenated series of silent shorts) with gramophone accompaniment at Tehrans Gulistan Palace.10Umid, Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 25. Naficy has written that Ivanov and Mirza Mahdi Khan Musavvar al-Mulk, also a court photographer and artist, were responsible for the screening held in honor of the crown prince at Gulistan Palace (A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 64). However, the source (Yahya Zukaʾ) that Naficy has cited for his information does not appear to endorse this claim.  The audience gave the screening an enthusiastic reception which inspired Ivanov to purchase a Pathé projector and 15 reels of second-hand films—a mix of comic shorts, actualities, travelogues, and newsreels.11Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 65.  Historians have disagreed about where Ivanov sourced his equipment and reels from, with Gaffary claiming Paris and Adle speculating that Russian ports like Odessa and Rostov were more likely points of origin given Ivanovs connections to Russia.12Adle has detailed his disagreement with Gaffary in “Acquaintance with Cinema and the First Steps of Filming and Filmmaking in Iran,” 184.   These early film reels were likely French productions and Zukaʾ has even identified some of them as Pathé comedies starring Max Linder and Charles Prince (Rigadin).13Zukaʾ, Tārīkh-i ʿakkāsī va ʿakkāsān-i pīshgām dar Īrān, 150.  However, Ivanov could well have purchased them second-hand from Russian dealers. In fact, Huma Javdani has reported that Ivanov made multiple trips to Russia during his three-year career as a cinema hall operator, returning with a trunk-full of film reels from at least one of them.14Javdani, Salshumār-i tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān: Tīr 1279-Shahrīvar 1379 (Tehran: Nashr-i Qatrih, 2002), 19.  By February 1907, Ivanov was screening films for the palace household and then in the homes of Tehran’s elite.15Umid, Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 25. Naficy has speculated that these kinds of private screenings at high society events also included gramophone accompaniment (A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 49).  Ivanov’s traveling showalso included a cinematic precursor: the magic lantern, shahr-i farang in Persian, where guests could watch slides of world landmarks, everyday scenes, and fictional narratives through a peep hole.16 Umid, Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 36n34.  This mixed media program may well have been in imitation of Sahhafbashi Tihrani’s shows of film shorts and magic lantern color plates at his defunct theater.17Adle, “Acquaintance with Cinema and the First Steps of Filming and Filmmaking in Iran,” 187.

Spurred by the success of these private showings, Ivanov purchased additional projection equipment and began in October 1907 (coinciding with the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan) to hold public film screenings every Monday and Friday night at his photography studio.18Baharlu, Sad chihrih-ʾi sīnamā-yi Īrān, 13.  The studio was in an area housing several European diplomatic missions, Qajar nobility, and wealthy merchants and his neighbors came to comprise the bulk of Ivanov’s audience. It was not long before he rented the courtyard next to his studio and installed benches there for screenings, with seating for two hundred (male) patrons.19Scholars have differed on the location of Ivanov’s first public screenings. Gaffary has written that the courtyard next to his studio was where he hosted his first audiences in October 1907 (“Coup d’œil sur les 35 premières années du cinema en Iran,” 228). Gaffary elsewhere and earlier has also claimed that Ivanov did not have any public film showings until 1908 (Le cinèma en Iran [Tehran: Le conseil superieur de la Culture et des Arts, Centre d’études et de la coordination Culturelles, 1973], 3). However, Umid has provided evidence of two advertisements in the Habl al-matin newspaper from October and November 1907, in which Ivanov invited readers to attend screenings in his studio (Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 25).

The hour-long courtyard screenings were held nightly. Ivanov also advertised the acquisition of new films, including a Russian propaganda reel on the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5), which Baharlu has reported had the subtitle “Long Live Russia!”20Sad chihrih-ʾi sīnamā-yi Īrān, 14. Scholars have argued that Ivanov favored (or came to favor) Russian or pro-Russian films in his cinema programming, with this documentary short presented as prime evidence. His Russian Tatar background and close relationship with Colonel Vladimir Liakhov, Russian commander of the Shah’s Cossack Brigade and frequent patron of his screenings, have also figured into discussions of Ivanov’s preference for Russian fare.21E.g., Gisu Faghfuri, Sarguzasht-i sīnamā dar Īrān (Tehran: Nashr-i Ufuq, 2012), 20.  However, a lack of Russian productions at the time would have severely limited Ivanov’s ability to put together such a program even if, as scholars have argued, it was his intention. According to Naficy, Ivanov was the first cinema operator to give titles to his film programs in newspaper advertisements.22Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 64-65.  Baharlu has even provided some of the program titles but they give the reader no hint of the films’ country or countries of origin.23Baharlu, Sad chihrih-ʾi sīnamā-yi Īrān, 14. It is likely that Ivanov continued to buy the same kinds of films with which he had already enjoyed success and were plentiful in the resale marketFrench comedies, newsreels, and documentary shorts. His screening of the Russian propaganda reel could even be explained by his need to shepherd his fledgling business through (or, to put it less charitably, take advantage of) the turbulent politics of the time: the period of the ‘lesser tyranny’ (istibdād-i saghīr), in which the monarch was seeking to overturn the gains of the constitutionalists with Russian backing. In fact, Baharlu has written that fellow cinema hall owner and Ivanov’s bitter rival, the Caucasian émigré Aqayuf, had also shown at this time the same pro-Russian film to his Cossack and royalist patrons.24Baharlu, Sad chihrih-ʾi sīnamā-yi Īrān, 14

According to Umid, Ivanov’s competition with Aqayuf would encourage him during the first half of 1908 to convert the courtyard of Dar al-Funūn’s assembly hall into an open-air cinema. He installed a canopy and benches with space for 150 to 200 people.25 Umid, Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 25-6. Umid has written that Ivanov traveled to Russia in the summer of 1908 after establishing the Dar al-Funūn cinema. Thus, it can be surmised that he carried out the courtyard conversion during the first half of the year.  Undoubtedly his close relations with the court and Liakhov smoothed the way for the expansion of his cinema business. Naficy has written that Liakhov even saved Ivanov from paying taxes as well as from police punishment for “other transgressions.26 Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 66. When the rivalry between Ivanov and Aqayuf turned violent, Ivanov called on Liakhov to arrest and imprison Aqayuf in the Russian embassy. Ironically, Aqayuf’s counter-complaint briefly landed Ivanov in the same prison!27Umid, Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 26. Despite this hiccup, Ivanov’s business prospects continued to improve. In the second half of 1908, in an unlikely partnership with radical constitutionalist Haydar Amu Ughli, he rented out the second floor of the Farus publishing house on Lālihzār street and converted it into a cinema hall with seating for as many as 600 patrons.28Nasir Habibiyan and Mahya Aqa Husayni, Tamāshākhānihhā-yi Tihrān: Az 1247 tā 1389 (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Afrāz, 2011), 67.  According to Naficy, Ivanov introduced a number of film exhibition practices in Iran that outlived his career as a cinema hall operator. Fierce competition with Aqayuf for a limited customer base likely fueled these innovations.29 Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 64-5 As previously mentioned, he was the first to place newspaper advertisements with descriptions of his nightly programs, which he changed regularly. Screenings included musical accompaniment, both live and recorded.30Javdani has written that Ivanov hired a pianist and violinist to perform during film showings at the Dar al-Funun cinema (Salshumār-i tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān: Tīr 1279-Shahrīvar 1379, 19). He would ultimately make musical accompaniment a standard feature in all of his cinema programs (Umid, Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 25).  One film historian has suggested that Ivanov was also the first cinema operator to employ what came to be known as a dilmaj, or screen translator, to aid audiences’ comprehension of his films.31Faghfuri, Sarguzasht-i sīnamā dar Īrān, 20 He equipped his Farus theater, which opened in October or November 1908, with arc light projection, a power generator, fan, and a restaurant-bar where his high-powered patrons, including British and Russian diplomats and members of the Cossack Brigade, supposedly drank alcoholic beverages well into the night.32 Umid, Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 26 and 37n41. However, he also came to offer discounted tickets to students,33Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 65.  perhaps betraying his longer-term understanding of cinema-going as a leisure activity for the masses and especially the youth. 

In line with a long-term vision of the cinema as a popular art form, Ivanov also sought to overcome the objections of religious authorities to the medium according to film scholars. After disassociating himself from the Dar al-Funun cinema in late 1908, he opened a new theater near Darvazih Qazvin in Tehran’s popular Sangalaj neighborhood. In an interview with Gaffary during his final years, Ivanov claimed that he invited Sahhafbashi Tihrani’s one-time bête noire Shaykh Fazl Allah Nuri there to attend a screening, to which the cleric agreed and ultimately ruled the cinema to be permissible.34Gaffary, Le cinèma en Iran, 4. Naficy has written more circumspectly about Nuri’s reaction (see A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 66). Film scholar Muhammad Tahami Nizhad has claimed, based on his reading of Gaffary’s interview, that Ivanov even accused Nuri of seeking to extort money from him in exchange for his cooperation in advancing the public’s acceptance of the cinema and cinema-going. Adle has referenced Tahami Nizhad’s conjecture in “Acquaintance with Cinema and the First Steps of Filming and Filmmaking in Iran,” 210n41.  Such examples of friendly engagement with potential political and religious enemies (unlike Ivanov’s treatment of professional rivals) would seem to bring into question an oft-repeated anecdote about armed constitutionalists forcibly taking over his Farus cinema to watch and discuss films,35See, for example, Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 66. especially when considering the fact that one such radical revolutionary (Amu Oghli) was his business partner there. Indeed, Gaffary has written that radical mujahidin militants fighting for the constitution, in the wake of their victory in 1909, became regular attendees at his Farus theater.36Gaffary, Le cinèma en Iran, 4.  Whatever feelings he may have had for his patrons, Ivanov (knowingly or unknowingly) had taken important steps towards democratizing the cinema

After constitutionalists on 16 July 1909 deposed Muhammad ʿAli Shah, who took temporary refuge in the Russian embassy, Ivanov closed his Darvazih Qazvin cinema.37Baharlu, Sad chihrah-ʾi sīnamā-yi Īrān, 14. Umid has written that he made some changes to his Farus theater at this time but does not provide specifics (Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 26).  Historians have speculated that his close relationship with the Qajar royal household, whose future was very much in question with the eleven-year-old Ahmad (r. 1909-25) now ascending to the throne, had prompted Ivanov to scale down his cinema business. He had only recently received the title of ʿAkkasbashi as the official court photographer and perhaps felt especially vulnerable to constitutionalists’ retribution against court officials and allies.38Baharlu has written that Ivanov received this title earlier and after Mirza Ibrahim Rahmani ʿAkkasbashi (Sad chihrih-ʾi sīnamā-yi Īrān, 13) but his dating conflicts with Umid’s claim of ʾAbd Allah Mirza’s appointment as ʿAkkasbashi in 1907 (Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 25). It is more likely that Ivanov received this title only after his mentor’s passing in 1908 or 9.  His role as a royal documentarian may have motivated him on 1 February, 1909 to take up a film camera during the Tehran mourning ceremonies for the third Shiʿite Imam Husayn.39Adle has suggested that Ivanov had intended for the commercial exploitation of the film rather than making it for the private use of the court (“Acquaintance with Cinema and the First Steps of Filming and Filmmaking in Iran,” 200). However, his recent appointment as official court photographer and the film’s subject matter, which had previously been the topic of a court-commissioned film, casts some doubt on his conclusion.  In doing so, Ivanov became the second person to make films in Iran after Mirza Ibrahim Rahmani ʿAkkasbashi, who had also filmed the Tehran Muharram processions in 1901 (and likely with the very camera that Ivanov used eight years later).40Adle, relying on Gaffary’s published account of his interviews with Ivanov, has written that Mirza Ibrahim Rahmani ʿAkkasbashi had sold his camera to Ivanov after the death of his patron Muzaffar al-Din Shah (“Acquaintance with Cinema and the First Steps of Filming and Filmmaking in Iran,” 200). For details on Mirza Ibrahim Rahmani ʿAkkasbashi’s 1901 Muharram documentary film, also see Adle, “Acquaintance with Cinema and the First Steps of Filming and Filmmaking in Iran,” 202. The film he shot, roughly 80 meters in length and known to film historians by the title ʿAshuraʾ, was sent to Russia to be developed and received a screening there but deteriorating political conditions made any public showing in Iran impossible.41Umid, Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 26. The chaos of the interregnum would ultimately bring an end to Ivanov’s career in film exhibition and film-making. On the same day as Mohammad Ali Shah’s deposal, constitutionalists had looted Ivanov’s ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlah studio, with his photography equipment, photographs, and thousands of meters of films (including the ʿAshuraʾ documentary) destroyed or stolen.42While only the existence of Ivanov’s documentary of the Muharram ceremonies has been confirmed, Gaffary has claimed that Ivanov revealed in their interviews that there were two thousand meters or more of film reels in the studio (presumably shot by Ivanov) when it was plundered (Adle, “Acquaintance with Cinema and the First Steps of Filming and Filmmaking in Iran,” 200, 212n125). Zukaʾ has written that Ivanov’s partner Mahdi Musavvar al-Mulk reopened the studio after the looting and continued to operate it through 1910, when illness forced him to close it for good (Tārīkh-i ʿakkāsī va ʿakkāsān-i pīshgām dar Īrān, 150n6).  His royal patron’s departure for Odessa in September 1909 likely put Ivanov’s future in Iran on even shakier ground. By early 1910, he had divested himself of the Farus cinema, after supposedly growing tired of mujahidin attendees disrupting his programs with their personal disputes. Umid has written that Mirza Ismail Qafqazi (also known as George Ismaʿiluf), a War Ministry (Vizarat-i Jang) employee, took over the Farus theater and bought Ivanov’s projector. In 1911, Ivanov cut his remaining links to the cinema business by selling a second projector and 30 to 40 reels of films to an iron dealer named Amir Khan, who later organized a traveling show in the provinces.4343 Umid, Tārīkh-i sīnamā-yi Īrān, 1279-1357, 26. Unfortunately, there is a lack of clarity in the histories about the fate of Ivanov’s assets. Baharlu, for example, has suggested that Ivanov sold his projection equipment and films in 1910 to Ismaʿiluf and Amir Khan, who as partners undertook a provincial screening tour (Sad chihrih-ʾi sīnamā-yi Īrān, 14). Muhammad Tahami Nizhad has also claimed that an Amir Khan opened a cinema on what is today Bab-i Humayun Street, just south of Ivanov’s photography studio after July 1909 and the end of the ‘lesser tyranny’ (Sīnamā-yi Īrān [Tehran: Daftar-i Pazhūhishhā-yi Farhangī, 2001], 20). However, he does not indicate whether this Amir Khan is the same individual who bought Ivanov’s equipment and films.  One year later, Ivanov left for Paris in service of the deposed Shahs wife and remained there until his death on March 15, 1968.44Gaffary, Le cinèma en Iran, 4.

In summary, Ivanov’s engagements with the cinematic medium were short-lived but eventful. Film historians have generally portrayed Ivanov negatively as a reactionary, with pointed reference to the personal relationships he had cultivated with the Qajar court and the Cossack royal guard. Their hostile profiles of Ivanov have (perhaps unintentionally) underplayed his early and meaningful contributions to cinema in Iran. However, a closer examination of his career would seem to indicate an individual capable of extending himself socially and professionally and even adjusting his political perspectives to secure his interests during a troubled time in modern Iranian history. As Hamid Naficy has written:   

Like most secular modernists of the era with roots in traditional and religious cultures, Ivanov had divided loyalties and multiple identities. His mixed background could account for his political conservatism . . . as well as for his professional radicalism . . . That he set up his Farus Cinema with the aid of a revolutionary fighter despite his loyalty to the Shah and to the reactionary Russian forces; that he placed ads for his film programs in both politically radical and pro-constitution papers; and that he attempted to appease clerical leaders gives evidence more of his political flexibility and pragmatism than of his reactionary politics.45Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 67.  

The benefit of this more charitable reading of Ivanov is that it at least ascribes a logic to his professional trajectory that other histories have lacked.   




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Cinema Iranica (April 21, 2024) Mahdi Ivanov (Rusi Khan). Retrieved from
"Mahdi Ivanov (Rusi Khan)." Cinema Iranica - April 21, 2024,
Cinema Iranica January 31, 2024 Mahdi Ivanov (Rusi Khan)., viewed April 21, 2024,<>
"Mahdi Ivanov (Rusi Khan)." Cinema Iranica - Accessed April 21, 2024.