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.
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.
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.