Born in Tehran, Mehrjui developed an early interest in music, learning the piano and santur. He came to study cinema at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), but abandoned it for a philosophy degree, reputedly disappointed by the UCLA film school’s Hollywood emphasis. After graduating in 1964, he started a literary magazine, which he saw not as a rejection of cinema but as the best way to combine his literary, painterly, musical, and philosophical interests. Mahrjui’s first film upon his return to Iran was Diamond 33 (1967), a rehash of the James Bond subgenre, that was neither critically nor commercially successful. Mehrjui never returned to such action-dominated filmmaking, and his next film, The Cow (1969), scripted and based on a story by Gholamhossein Saedi, began his regular collaboration with important literary figures. A metaphoric critique of the Iranian government shot in stark black–and-white, The Cow helped launch the Iranian New Wave and brought Mehrjui fame both domestically and on the International film festival circuit. In Mr. Naïve (1970), The Postman (1971), and The Cycle (1976), he continued to expose social problems through a poetic approach to cinema that could bypass official censorship.
Although he temporarily left the country following the 1979 Iranian Revolution—making A Journey to the Land of Rimbaud in France in 1984—Mehrjui has returned to make some of the most acclaimed postrevolutionary Iranian films. His comedy on the housing situation in Tehran, The Tenants (1985), was highly successful at the box-office. Harpoon (1990) is a complex tale of intellectual alienation, interlaid with dream sequences and fantasies, as the eponymous protagonist struggles to balance Western objectivism and traditional beliefs. Banu (1992), Sara (1993), Pari (1994), and Leila (1996) are all films that center on the lives and struggles of bourgeois women, a clear shift from Mehrjui’s early focus on the poor. Leila, banned in Iran until Mohammad Khatami was elected president, is the story of a barren woman (Leila Hatami) who, despite her own feelings, allows—indeed encourages—her husband to take a second wife so that he might have a child. Including many close-ups and a shadowy bedroom scene, Leila pushed at the limits of Iranian censor ship; it also provoked vehement criticism for its portrayal of female villainy and passivity. Although the film utilizes numerous distancing devices—notably direct address to the camera, sound distortion, missing frames, and brightly colored fades—the emotionally wrenching story remains paramount. Mehrjui has completed more than 20 features to date, sustaining one of Middle Eastern cinema’s most significant careers.