Rumi film will challenge Muslim stereotypes, says Gladiator writer

Istanbul - An Oscar-winning screenwriter has agreed to work on a biopic about the 13th-century poet Jalaluddin al-Rumi.

David Franzoni, who wrote the script for the 2000 blockbuster Gladiator, and Stephen Joel Brown, a producer on the Rumi film, said they wanted to challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim characters in western cinema by charting the life of the great Sufi scholar.

“He’s like a Shakespeare,” Franzoni said. “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.”

Producers hope to begin shooting the film next year. Franzoni and Brown were in Istanbul last week to meet with Rumi experts and visited the mystic’s mausoleum in Konya.

“It’s a very exciting project – and obviously challenging,” Franzoni said. “There are a lot of reasons we’re making a product like this right now. I think it’s a world that needs to be spoken to; Rumi is hugely popular in the United States. I think it gives him a face and a story.”

Rumi’s spiritual and mystical epics, the Masnavi and the Divan, are widely considered among the best poetry ever written and have been translated into numerous languages. The Sufi teacher, who fled in his youth from his birthplace in present-day Afghanistan during the Mongol invasion, travelled through Baghdad, Mecca and Damascus with his family as a refugee before settling in Konya, in modern-day Turkey, where he died in old age.

Rumi’s encounter with the enigmatic mystic Shams of Tabriz, believed to have occurred in 1244, altered the course of his life. After Shams’s mysterious disappearance, an aggrieved Rumi wrote much of the love poetry that he is widely known for in the west – couplets that endure in pocketbook versions of his writings, which have made him the bestselling poet in the US.

Franzoni and Brown said they would like Leonardo DiCaprio to play Rumi, and Robert Downey Jr to star as Shams of Tabriz, though they said it was too early to begin casting. “This is the level of casting that we’re talking about,” said Brown, chief executive of Y Productions, who was also a producer on other hit films such as Se7en, The Fugitive and the Devil’s Advocate. The movie will be co-produced by Y Productions and Es Film.

A key challenge will be trying to build credible and identifiable profiles of Rumi and Shams from a considerable body of mythology. Even the basic facts of their lives are in dispute. Revered Islamic figures in popular discourse tend to be mythologised as saints rather than flawed characters, with their achievements embellished and their flaws papered over.

“We’re trying to invent and resurrect a character at the same time because there is so much missing in the shadow of history, and some of it is idealised so you have to go back and find the human being who became a saint, because we can’t write about a saint,” said Franzoni.

Shams’s character is also complicated to portray. While those working on the film do not see him as a villain, they do view him as a chaotic influence who distracted Rumi from his teachings and family. The ambiguities could allow writers and producers greater artistic licence, and they hope the intellectual arm-wrestling of the two key figures in the story will make for compelling viewing. “The greatness of Rumi, so much of it came out of that unpredictability and being challenged,” said Franzoni.

Franzoni said the film would probably include a prologue of Rumi’s flight from his birthplace, a situation he said had parallels with modern times. The Mongol invasions bore some semblance to the rampage of extremists in the Middle East today, and the ensuing flight of civilians, he said.

The film will focus on Rumi’s teachings as well as his encounter with Shams, while giving prominence to Kimya, the poet’s outspoken daughter who some scholars believe may have married Shams.

Franzoni and Brown said the main reason they wanted to make the movie was to introduce Rumi’s life story to the millennial generation that so loved Rumi’s poetry. Franzoni said he hoped the audience would be able to identify with the poet. “What’s fascinating is where did this all come from? It’s the 21st century and we’re rolling in it and embracing it. If we position ourselves carefully, [we can say] now we’re going to tell you where something you love came from,” he said.

“I think it’s obvious why people love his poetry. There’s a line about Lawrence of Arabia when they ask him why he likes the desert, and he says ‘because it’s clean’. There’s something profoundly ‘gettable’ about Rumi. You get it. And not only do you get it but it involves you.”