Synopsis – When on the run from the cops , Amir finds his estranged sister Tara, who in a bid to protect her brother lands up in jail. Their entire lives have been clouded by despair as unexpectedly the light shines on them from Beyond the Clouds.
My Take – While a general audience may not know much about Iranian-born filmmaker Majid Majidi, who was Oscar nominated for his film, Children Of Heaven (1998), in the Best Foreign Language category, his reliable work over the years has made sure that his name is taken in high regards by cinema lovers across the world. While his first Indian venture has created quite a buzz ever since its inception, right from Deepika Padukone giving a look-test to Kangana Ranaut claiming ‘she walked out of the film because her role wasn’t substantial’, the film has been in news for various reasons.
Of course, everyone’s quite curious to know what director Majidi has in store, especially considering he has employed the right kind of support to make his film is success in all forms, by acquiring the services of Academy Award-winning music composer A.R. Rahman, cinematographer Anil Mehta, touted filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj for dialogues and of course, launching the latest face of tomorrow, Ishaan Khatter, younger sibling to Shahid Kapoor, in his 1st leading role. Also his films are known to seamlessly combine grime reality with metaphors and every cloud has a silver lining. Does the film live up to its potential? Well, yes and no.
With powerful visuals and some unexpected human bonds, director Majidi does manage to tug at the heartstrings mainly as he touches most of his pet themes in the film, humanitarianism, and the innocence of children, social injustice, familial ties and lastly even faith. It is a gift the filmmaker has and uses to his full potential. However, the minimal plot of the film is almost threadbare, and the theme of seemingly-bad-people-discovering-their-innate-goodness has already become a hackneyed concept in Bollywood. Yet, the silver lining, of course, is Ishaan Khattar, whose raw energy throbbing with his electrifying charm is one of the best things about the film. While the film has wowed audiences around festivals, it has turned out to be a damp squib at the Indian box office, which of course is not surprising considering, how independent cinema are still given a pass over mainstream Bollywood.
The story follows Aamir (Ishaan Khattar), a street boy who makes a living off peddling drugs, for drug merchant Rahul (Shashank Shende). Day dreaming of making it big by any means possible, Aamir’s life takes a turn when once of his employer’s drug hideout is raided by the cops. Running for his life, with a stash of expensive drugs, Aamir finds himself at the Dhobi Ghat were his estranged sister Tara (Malavika Mohanan) works, who uses the help of an older male colleague Akshi (Goutam Ghose), to conceal him, and his stash from the pursuing police. However, unknown to them, this act makes Akshi think that Taara is now somehow beholden to him, in an attempt to rape her, takes a rock to the head from her.
Arrested for murder charges, Taara finds herself facing life in prison, unless Akshi recovers and can be persuaded to admit his role in the incident, and although he regains consciousness, Akshi is unable to talk. Caught in a web of this unfortunate events Aamir’s finds himself in a desperate situation, as Akshi’s family, that includes his mother (Sharada) and his two daughters, become refugees at his house and sort of gets attached to them, not realizing they are the same people who are related to the man who has put his sister behind bars.
Penned by Majid Majidi and Mehran Kashani the script of the film is full of surprises. Right from the first scene of the film, people are introduced to suffocating crowd, bizarre bazaar of racketeering in Mumbai, as director Majidi pulls out all stops to capture the underbelly of the city through his lens. Panning from the flashy billboards and high-rise buildings, director Majidi takes us to the impoverished underbelly where the story of the above mentioned two siblings unfolds. Well, ever since the trailer of the film was released, somewhere even if it is for a second, people thought that the film might resemble Slumdog Millionaire but here director Majidi deserves to be praised as apart from the slum set up, the film walks on a totally different path. Instead, the film feels more like an updated version of Mira Nair’s 1988 film, Salaam Bombay!, with its gritty visual aesthetic and its focus on children living on (or just off) Mumbai’s streets.
Its protagonist Amir could be an older version of Chaipau, the young protagonist of Nair’s film, his shyness eroded and replaced by street-smarts and cynicism. A brothel is a prominent setting in both films, and the sale of a young girl to a pimp occurs in both. But there’s one big difference: Salaam Bombay! Is empathetic but resolutely clear-eyed, whereas director Majidi – as with his previous work in Iran, doesn’t shy away from sentiment. Yes, at times veers dangerously close to becoming a Bollywood film (and that’s hardly ever a good thing), but there are moments in the film that are overwrought and extremely sentimental. While most of director Majidi’s previous films have an unmistakable spiritual core where the intrinsic goodness always washes away the darkness within, here too, the characters, although stuck in a never-ending labyrinth of problems, uphold the higher values of kindness and compassion. As his main focus is to make the audience feel intimately and deeply about his characters and his mastery lies in the fact that he makes you forget that what you are essentially watching is a very simple, if not completely clichéd story.
Despite the larger scale, change in location and ethos, he does not waver from his faith in the story about inherently good people in the worst circumstances. He captures their humanity subtlety, but makes it impossible to ignore. Where director Majidi comes into his own is in the inherent humanism of his story, as Amir and Tara are children of a lesser god, ignored, abused, and infused with cynicism. Their hatred and vengeance is contrasted by the innocence of the people around them, as director Majidi constructs these contrasting sequences, one following the other, making them instantly affecting. For example, when Amir is ogling at Akshi’s daughter for revenge is a particularly harrowing one, and the other where Amir torments the bed-ridden rapist in the hospital. He takes off Akshi’s oxygen mask and waits until he cannot breathe anymore, deliciously savoring his pain. But, as soon as he begins to drift off, Amir quickly places the mask back onto his face.
It’s a tragic situation to be in, trying to keep your sister’s rapist alive, so that your sister can stay out of jail. Yet, they are ambitiously optimistic, sure at their worst, they are often pushed to the limits, but they always return to their human roots. Both Taara and Aamir find hope in their desperate situation through connections with children. Taara befriends Chotu, the child of an ailing prisoner (Tannishtha Chatterjee), while Aamir grudgingly warms to Akshi’s mother and two daughters; even if he first toys with the idea of selling the older of the two girls to a local pimp. On the technical front, with Anil Mehta‘s brilliant cinematography, director Majidi engages all your senses in his film and captures Mumbai in all its glory and ugliness.
The main characters of the film belong to the Mumbai’s underclass, and as the camera follows them around we see many dingy, mucky by lanes, where sewer water clogs potholes. The duo makes sure to capture the street style beauty of Mumbai; from swirling fresh smelly clothes on Dhobi Ghat to the case among hundreds of fluttering pigeons they’ve covered the heart. Throughout the film, Mumbai isn’t just a setting or background, it is in fact the film’s third protagonist. A.R. Rahman too juices up the situations to create a blend of music going with the narration. One special mention that highlights the greatness of this maestro is, in a chase sequence he decides to go with a fast-paced Tabla and Sitar; the combo takes the scene to another level.
Coming to the loopholes, yes, the pace does slacken towards the second half, especially after an abrupt intermission. This could have been a film without a break just so that we stayed with Aamir and Tara with more involvement. Also the climax felt like it came out of nowhere. Yes, the film does not cater to the needs of tradition Bollywood film lovers as there are places where the film falls short and leaves some unanswered queries, but one who’s really into the film would get the subtext, while rest may question it. Yet, director Majidi‘s true victory lies in the ensemble cast. Led by debutante Ishan Khatter‘s fantastic performance.
Being a brother to a performer like Shahid Kapoor can make things tricky, given the barrage of comparisons and parallels that will be drawn, but Ishaan manages to charm without having to walk in the shadow of his superstar elder sibling. There is a raw appeal to his natural acting ability and that has a certain beauty to it. The scene towards the climax, where he breaks down or those moments of him break dancing to the Prabhu Deva song, showcase his untapped potential. He is undeniably the star of tomorrow, I am really looking forward to watching him in Dharma Production‘s Dhadak. Malayalam actress, Malavika Mohanan, in her first Hindi film, is also graceful and composed. Veteran South Indian actress GV Sharada, who is a three-time National Award winner, does justice to her role. Without speaking a word in Hindi (no subtitles either), she lets her eyes speak and let out the emotions. Young Dhwani Rajesh, who plays the only bridge of broken English between her Tamil grandmother and Amir is wonderful in her expressions and her innocence is captured to dramatic effect through the film. Gautam Ghose as the man who brings disaster on the protagonists brings to his complex dark role some shades of unexpected empathy. In a small role, Tannishtha Chatterjee shines as always. On the whole, ‘Beyond the Clouds‘ is a gutsy drama that brings a flawed yet unique take on the human spirit, and deserves a watch especially for Ishaan Khatter‘s strong debut.
Directed – Majid Majidi
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 120 minutes