A cinematic journey through Uzbekistan: How one actor’s career reflects the nation’s cultural evolution and history

Murod Rajabov in the 1990 film “Temir Hotin.” Screenshot from UzbekFilmsHD YouTube channel.

Murod Rajabov, a renowned Uzbek actor and director, left an indelible mark on the film industry of Uzbekistan. His performances managed to touch people’s hearts. In 2008, he was awarded the title of People’s Artist of Uzbekistan, an acknowledgment of and tribute to his contribution to the national film industry. Over the years, Rajabov became a household name in Uzbekistan.

He was born on May 30, 1949, in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent. In 1971, Rajabov graduated from the Tashkent Theater and Art Institute. He passed away on April 8, 2023, at the age of 74. His career lasted for 45 years, and during this period, he performed in more than 100 films.

Rajabov’s illustrious career reflects the nation’s cultural and historical journey. His roles provide insights into the struggles, aspirations, and evolving identities of people in Uzbekistan. His career is a reminder of the importance of cinema as a medium for capturing and preserving a nation’s history and culture. Through Rajabov’s work, one can gain a deeper understanding of the people and the land he so passionately represented.

Early career: Soviet Uzbekistan

Rajabov’s early career was marked by roles that mirrored the social, political, and cultural realities of Soviet Uzbekistan. The country was part of the Soviet Union between 1925 and 1991.

A 1977 film called “Ajoyib Hayolparast” (Amazing Dreamer) offers insights into Uzbekistan’s cultural and social environment in the 1970s. It tells the story of a village doctor, Hasan, who leaves his job to operate his own rabbit farm. His ultimate goal is to become rich and influential. Amid Soviet slogans and propaganda promoting a prosperous life, Uzbek people were dreaming of a better future during this period. Rajabov’s role in this movie was short but memorable, bringing him nationwide fame.

The film “Ajoyib Hayolparast” is available on YouTube.

One of Rajabov’s biggest roles came in the 1990 tragicomedy called “Temir Hotin” (Iron Woman). In it, he portrayed the main character, Kochkorvoy, a tractor driver with a drinking problem. His alcohol-fueled fights become so uncontrollable that his wife takes their children and leaves him, prompting a change in his behavior. Amid this turmoil, a scientist Olimtoy arrives in the village with a humanoid robot designed to pick cotton. Bearing a striking resemblance to a woman, it is brought to Kochkorvoy’s house for testing. Kochkorvoy fails to grasp the robot’s true nature and becomes determined to marry it. The robot then starts to perform the daily household chores of an average Uzbek woman, which ends tragically.

The film “Temir Hotin” is available on YouTube.

The film sheds light on the hardships faced by Uzbek women during cotton-picking campaigns in Soviet Uzbekistan. It offers a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people, including the oppression and forced labor of Uzbek people in cotton fields. The film highlights the heartbreaking fact that many women committed suicide due to the unbearable struggles they faced in daily life. While the movie aimed to depict these harrowing realities, it had to be presented with humor to avoid censorship prevalent in the Soviet Union.

Its immense popularity and status as a national drama can be attributed to its poignant reflection on Uzbek people’s suffering, the profound tragedy of forced labor, and Uzbek women’s rights in the Soviet era.

Street gangs and mafia groups in real life and films

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked a tumultuous period in Uzbekistan’s history. The central government had not yet fully formed, and the nation grappled with the rise of street gangs and mafia groups.

Rajabov’s roles during this time include appearances in films that depict this challenging phase of Uzbekistan’s history. In the early 1990s, Rajabov appeared in the leading role in the “Code of Silence” film series, where he played the role of a police officer who fights against criminal gangs and drug traffickers in Soviet Uzbekistan in the late 1980s.

In the 1998 film “Kichkina Tabib” (The Little Doctor), Rajabov took on the role of a mafia kingpin involved in drug trafficking who finds himself in a difficult predicament when his granddaughter falls ill. His character is forced to confront the consequences of his actions as he tries to save his granddaughter at the cost of his own freedom.

The film “Kichkina Tabib” is available on YouTube.

These films provide a glimpse into the tumultuous period that ensued after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent power vacuum in Uzbekistan.

Uzbek national identity, household stories, and censorship

As Uzbekistan gained its independence, a renewed sense of national identity emerged. The state launched nation-building projects using elements from the glorious past of Uzbekistan. This shift was reflected in the films produced in the post-independence era. Rajabov played pivotal roles in two historical films, “Imam al-Bukhari” in 1998 and “Buyuk Amir Temur” (The Great Amir Temur) in 1996, which portrayed great historical figures and the golden era of Uzbek statehood. His portrayal of these important figures helped revive national pride and contributed to the growing cultural awareness.

The film “Buyuk Amir Temur” is available on YouTube.

As Uzbekistan entered a new era under the authoritarian rule of the first president, Islam Karimov, the film industry shifted its focus to stories about romance and everyday household topics rather than portraying critical societal problems. Rajabov’s career mirrored this change. The majority of his roles revolved around family dramas and romantic tales, in which he mainly played father figures in humorous ways. Films tackling serious issues or politically sensitive topics were absent, reflecting how the Karimov regime censored artistic expression.

One such instance of censorship was Rajabov’s directorial venture, a film called “Anora,” which failed to reach a wider audience due to its limited release. It tells the story of a girl from a remote village who finds herself in the capital Tashkent, where she faces challenges such as treason and betrayal. Despite all the difficulties, Anora continues to look on the positive side of life and pursues happiness.

This film, along with several others that Rajabov had acted in, was not shown in any major theaters or TV channels. Rajabov expressed his discontent with the censorship, emphasizing that artists need artistic freedom to foster creativity.

Due to the censorship, Rajabov gravitated mostly toward comedic films. His most famous comedic endeavor created during Karimov’s rule is the 2005 film called “Ulfatlar” (Friends). It is centered around the life stories of four old friends and the goofy situations they encounter. Rajabov not only played one of the main characters in the film but also directed it, showcasing his versatility and adaptability as an artist.

The film “Ulfatlar” is available on YouTube.

Throughout his life, Murod Rajabov was a staunch advocate for the preservation of Uzbek culture and values. He believed that the film industry played a crucial role in keeping the nation’s cultural heritage alive and passing it down to future generations. He stated: “The threads that bind the ages are severed, and it is my duty to bind them.” This sentiment encapsulates Rajabov’s commitment to ensuring that the essence of Uzbek culture remains an integral part of the nation’s identity.

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