Cast: Ishaan Khatter, Malavika Mohanan, G.V. Sharada, Goutam Ghose, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Shivam Pujari, Amruta Santosh Thakur, Dhwani Rajesh
Director: Majid Majidi
I often find myself fighting derisive criticism from friends and family about how trivial, mindless and irritating Bollywood is. Though I know some of what they say is true, the fact that fatuous generalisations are delivered with smug disdain for desi commercial cinema, it gets my goat. Especially since the sole purpose of the bitchfest seems to be to establish the superiority of their own taste and all that is foreign, especially Hollywood.
Many other goats across the nation, I suspect, bristle at such idiotic self-satisfaction.
So, when a master filmmaker, honoured and celebrated at international film festivals and award ceremonies that have never looked at Bollywood seriously, makes a trip to India and takes it upon himself to make a film, we expect to be bowled over.
Majid Majidi doesn’t bowl us over with Beyond the Clouds, a film he has written (story) and directed.
His Hindi-speaking film that is set in Mumbai is uneven — rising and dipping, almost in neat sequences.
Bad acting, awkward scenes, Bollywood clichés make it sink, but when it’s observing or playing with children — a Majid speciality — it sparkles and rises.
In between all this are some exceptional, memorable, piercing performances that should not be missed.
Beyond the Clouds opens with a camera slide — something it does often, at times to show us contrasts, at times to share with us the director’s shock at the grime and human wreckage.
From a busy, no-pedestrian expressway highway, we move down, to the dark, dingy underpass where some families dwell. It’s next to an open, dirty nallah.
Two boys — one with a tattoo and a backpack, the other with his curly hair tied high in a frizzy bouquet — going around on a bike dropping off small boxes of mithai.
Under the burfi is a thin sheet that hide pouches of some expensive drugs.
They go to the usual places — a handicraft shop, a nariyal paani wala — and then Amir (Ishaan Khatter) goes to collect his dues from a man called Rahul, who controls the drug distribution as well as a brothel.
Here too, in the brothel, the camera slides up, as if riding in a glass lift, observing haggling customers and hardened sex workers.
Amir barges into Rahul’s office. Is curtly told to wait.
Standing outside, he watches Rahul inspect the mouths of girls to check for rotting teeth, and then he turns his gaze to a little girl who has stepped out of her room to let a woman finish her business.
These are the sights — dance of shadows, staring at wide-eyed, dark complexioned faces — Beyond the Clouds treats us to often.
A bit like how we fetishise white faces and golden hair, Majidi’s Beyond the Clouds looks at Indian faces lovingly, romances the dirt and grime, and then cinematographer Anil Mehta’s camera goes a step further, insinuating that some sort of superior understanding and knowledge of this karmic universe bristles beyond their eyes.
Adding meaning and some deep interiority to faces that are cute but bland is a cheap trick that doesn’t work. Ever.
Here let us, for a bit, ponder over foreign directors and the irritable Indian.
Many of us in India were underwhelmed by Slumdog Millionaire. And when Danny Boyle’s 2008 film won eight Oscars, many of us were like, “Hain?” “Really!” “Whatever”.
In a fair fight, Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya (1998) would beat it hollow, and Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) would give it real competition. Except, perhaps, in music.
Varanasi, haathis swaying and buffaloes squatting on tarred roads, snake charmers and their cobras, Dabbawallas, barbers under trees, sadhus, sadhus smoking chilams, naked babas, beggar children, dog-man sleeping together, ragpickers in mounds of garbage, gaudy girls in seedy dance bars, people hanging from trains, busses…
India where the sublime and the heart-rending always in a sweaty clasp, is an India we see everyday.
So gawking foreigners clicking pictures that frame one part of our reality but pretend to be the whole irritates us no end.
Some of our irritation has to do with our own immunity to the dirt, poverty, corruption we have learnt to live with by, mostly, bypassing it.
We are inured to the unrelenting tragedy unfolding all around us. So it makes us uneasy when we are made to actually look at it and come up with a human reaction.
The other reason is that we have seen all this in our films in many varied ways — some super cool and impactful, some super idiotic and superficial, worth little more than framing a piece of Third World as still life.
So if a master is sending an invite, the least we expect is to be surprised.
But I digress. Amir demands the money Rahul owes him. This leads to the first twist, the first encounter with law, and takes Amir to his sister Tara (Malavika Mohanan) and thence to events that make lives spiral out of control.
Tara gets sent to jail and Amir has no choice but to nurse Akshi (Goutam Ghose), the man whose actions put Tara in jail, back to health so that he can give his statement.
Tara, meanwhile, takes on Chhotu (Shivam Pujari), son of her cellmate who is ill and facing death sentence.
This tangle of connections goes further, deeper when Akshi’s family — his wife (played by G.V. Sharada) and two daughters — arrive. They have no money, nowhere to stay and they don’t speak Hindi.
It’s in this setting, with Chhotu in jail, and Asha (Amruta Santosh Thakur) Tanisha (Dhwani Rajesh) in Amir’s house that Majidi’s Beyond the Clouds begins to breathe.
The characters, stuck in spaces and situations designed to suck humanity out of humans, gently tug at our heart with an outpouring of it.
With a tiny rat and some crayons, Majidi tells the story of the resilience of human spirit, about empathy, about people who have been dealt the crappiest cards — a trail of jokers from a pack so skewed — and yet ready to share, play, help another live a little.
The plot is interesting, there’s lots of humanity in Majidi’s telling, there’s little drama. Just a new way of seeing the old.
But not all the sights and sounds that fill up the screen are refreshing.
The film’s music is by A.R. Rahman, and the little jig that the film gets to do is courtesy his own classic, Muqabala (from Kadhalan, 1994).
In the rest of the film, sadly, the sounds are all too familial and their use rather clichéd.
The tabla that accompanies a chase sequence is mildly interesting till a sitar joins in to complete the trite circle of Hindi filmy sounds.
Similarly, the camera observes a lot — dhobi ghat, pigeons, slums, dirty open drains, brothels, thanas, jail — with the wonder of a first-timer. Majidi, perhaps, overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smell of Mumbai, wanted to capture it all — especially the excess, of filth, poverty, grime, traffic, noise, people, prosperity, spending, dearth, and of course large, naturally kohled eyes set in brown skin.
But Majidi shows his skills in a few sparkling moments that are unforgettable, like the fight sequence in Sewri mudflats, against the flamboyance of flamingos.
The kids — Shivam Pujari, Amruta Santosh Thakur and Dhwani Rajesh — are very good.
Malavika Mohanan is quite lovely, but quite bad.
Ishaan Khatter has a very pretty, expressive face and is very confident and very good.
He uses his face to excellent effect in emotional scenes, but also his body which, incidentally, grooves to Muqabala in ways that’ll catch Prabhu Deva’s attention.
G.V. Sharada is absolutely excellent and I just can’t get over her.
Her stillness is eerie, load-bearing, as if trying to contain a storm inside.
Watch Beyond the Clouds for Ishaan, watch it for Sharada, and watch it for those flamingos and Chhotu’s little rat.