The film begins with a view of a Mumbai street. The camera pulls down and we see the literal underbelly of the city. The contrast is right there in your face: the lush exterior of Mumbai and the hidden, suppressed poverty and darkness of its core. Iranian auteur Majid Majidi sets the tone of Beyond the Clouds right from the first shot.
The film stars Shahid Kapoor’s half-brother Ishaan Khatter as Amir and Malavika Mohanan as Tara, two siblings who dwell in a slum of the metropolis. Amir is a drug dealer, a slumdog trying to become a millionaire but his options are limited and he doesn’t have a reality show to participate in. Meanwhile, Tara works in the dhobi ghat.
It’s a mundane, day-to-day life – always on the move and yet, nothing really changes. And it’s not something we haven’t seen before on the big screen. But Majidi’s unique perspective is what makes Beyond the Clouds a fresh experience.
The film-maker brings his history of excellent symbolism, an eye for breathtaking patterns in different environments and a desire to find a certain ‘goodness’ in people despite trying circumstances. After Tara and Amir cross paths while the latter is on the run from police, they reminisce on their conflicted past.
Soon, Akshi (played by Gautam Ghose), Tara’s admirer tries to molest her, and her self-defense attempt puts him on the verge of death. Tara is jailed, while Amir finds himself with no choice but to wait for Akshi to get better and speak so that his sister can be freed. He also finds himself taking care of the man’s family. It’s then that you realize that Majidi is, in fact, telling a completely different story. It’s not about unearthing the past or racing to the future but finding the lost empathy in yourself in the face of an unjust social system and taxing, conflicting circumstances.
Majidi’s choice of opting for fresh and lesser-known faces works best for this story. Khatter shows potential with his charismatic screen presence and an ability to emote effectively. Mohanan, even though given limited room to play, projects well despite the sudden emotional transitions in her facial expressions. Ghose shows a tremendous emotive range only with his eyes.
The best of all, Anil Mehta’s cinematography brings to life the world Majidi envisions. Birds flying on the roundabout, clotheslines dividing the action on screen, stark silhouettes, constantly moving camera revealing how the city always runs in the fourth gear – all come together to form a picture of Mumbai that is beautifully tragic. A keen eye could find references to Majidi’s older works. In Children of Heaven, for instance, the young Ali and Zahra ran through the streets of Tehran; in Beyond the Clouds, it’s Amir and Tara on the streets of Mumbai.
It’s impossible not to talk about AR Rahman’s musical score. It must be said that neither he nor Majidi are at their finest here, but their collaboration brings out interesting sides of each other. India’s two-time Oscar-winner takes us from desi rap to metal guitar riffs to tabla percussions in a matter of minutes. It’s exactly this playfulness that keeps things interesting in Majidi’s dark world.
Beyond the Clouds at times, drags and there seems to be too much delaying of the follow-ups of actions. It could’ve easily been 15-20 minutes shorter to make the story more compact. Yet, you won’t want to walk out because Majidi keeps the suspense strong enough. Will Akshi survive? Will Tara spend a lifetime in jail? The questions won’t end until the last frame, and the last frame of the film will be etched into your memory for a long time.
Majidi’s foray into India may not have brought out his best but one can still appreciate his curious eye wandering in a new setting. He is clearly excited yet comfortable in the new environment, but this is exactly what hinders Beyond the Clouds from reaching the standard of his previous masterworks. It may not be his best but it’s still miles ahead of what’s being offered in local cinemas.
Beyond the Clouds takes you on a mesmerizing, poetic journey that is best experienced if you fully surrender yourself to it. Let Majidi be your tour guide through Mumbai; he will show you a new world.
Verdict: Beyond the Clouds will take you beyond the boundaries of mainstream South Asian cinema. Do watch!
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Note: This review was originally published on The Express Tribune in April 2018. It has been re-published on Film N’ Chips for archival purposes.