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‘Beyond the Clouds’ film review: A tale of hope and redemption that stays firmly out of grasp

Despite strong performances, Iranian director Majid Majidi’s first Indian movie is barely convincing.

Majid Majidi’s first Indian production is a Hindi movie with an English title – and that is only the first sign of a mismatch.

Beyond the Clouds has some of the restraint and delicateness of Majidi’s acclaimed Iranian films as well as the contrivance and melodrama typical of popular Hindi cinema. The Mumbai-set plot is creaky and improbable, the dialogue (by Vishal Bhardwaj, translated from English) stilted and bereft of local flavour, and the emphasis on redemption naive. The characters work in a generic sort of way rather than being representatives of the megapolis, and they could easily be transposed to any other city marked by inequality, crime and despair.

The movie’s falling-between-the-stools problem extends to its use of locations. Beyond the Clouds marvelously showcases parts of the city, some of which have been seen before and nevertheless look undiscovered, but also reduces these neighbourhoods to colourful backdrops against which to stage battles of the will and the conscience.

Like Majidi’s international breakthrough Children of Heaven (1997) and Children of Paradise (1997), Beyond the Clouds revolves around the way in which siblings watch out for each other. Amir (Ishaan Khatter), a small-time drug peddler, has been brought up by Tara (Malavika Mohanan) after the death of his parents. Tara appears to be Amir’s foster sister rather than his biological one (the movie elides the apparent difference in religion). Yet, they share a close enough bond for Amir to tip over the edge and into the moral abyss after Tara is jailed for attempted murder.

After trying to kill Akshi (Gautam Ghose) while escaping a rape attempt, Tara is locked away in prison, where she awaits her fate while her badly injured target recovers his faculties. Each displacement brings new emotional ties into view. The incarcerated Tara warms to a younger version of Amir, a boy whose mother (Tannistha Chatterjee) is dying from lung disease. Amir gets saddled with Akshi’s Tamil-speaking family comprising his mother Jhumpa (GV Sharada) and two young daughters. Amir is initially dismissive of these pathetic bundle-clutching characters, and even contemplates punting on them to rustle up enough money to free Tara. Since the movie adopts Amir’s adolescent worldview, the depths he is willing to sink to amount to nothing.

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Beyond the Clouds.

Majidi’s eye for colour, momentum and human geography inspire some of cinematographer Anil Mehta’s best work. There are beautiful travelling and overhead shots, heart-tugging close-ups of the characters, especially the actors cast as Akshi’s children, and richly textured locations. A recurring visual motif, of characters viewed in silhouette or as reflections on sheets of cloth, provides a vivid metaphor of the precariousness of their lives and the tenuous nature of their bonds.

The first glimpse of Amir is in a long shot. After he picks up a parcel from a passing vehicle on an arterial road, the camera ducks downwards to reveal a subterranean world that throbs beneath the billboard-lined asphalt ribbon. In a series of crisp scenes, Amir moves seemingly like the wind from one neighbourhood to the next. The details revealed by the montage do not stay faithful to the actual map of Mumbai. Even though it is clear to local viewers that Amir is actually going around in circles, the opening sequence sets up his determination to go as far as he can to save his sister.

Despite the suggestion of violence suffered by both Tara and Amir, real menace is also viewed in long shot. Mumbai’s unrelenting ugliness and squalor are kept out of sight – the government hospital where Akshi recuperates, for instance, is free of the usual chaos associated with such establishments. By ignoring the cynicism that marks the average urban poverty saga, Beyond the Clouds ends up being a fairy tale woven around people living on the periphery. There is none of the painful honesty of Salaam Bombay! nor the wish fulfillment fantasies of Slumdog Millionaire in Amir’s adventures. Even a sequence set in the flamingo-dotted mudflats, which provides another metaphor of the mess Amir has sucked himself into, is converted into a moment of the triumph of the Mumbai spirit.

Beyond the Clouds. Image credit: Namah Pictures/Zee Telefilms.
Beyond the Clouds. Image credit: Namah Pictures/Zee Telefilms.

The track that works the best isn’t Tara’s time in prison, which barely captures her plight. Amir’s dealings with the family that ends up adopting him produce some of the movie’s nicest moments. This is one chapter that feels unrestrained by the contrivance-laden script, and some of the quiet lyricism associated with Majidi’s early films surface in the interactions between Amir and Jhumpa’s brood.

The track also contains the movie’s most compelling performance. Malavika Mohanan makes an effective Tara despite being saddled with a one-note character, and Ishan Khatter works hard to make his poorly fleshed out Amir count. But the scene-stealer is GV Sharada, the veteran actress who plays Jhumpa with tremendous economy and sensitivity.

In one affecting scene, Amir traces the outlines of Akshi’s family on a wall, as is to etch their collective imprint on his soul. It is in these moments of intimacy between strangers that the movie manages to actually travel beyond the clouds, to someplace more convincing.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.