In Rahat Mahajan’s Meghdoot, the clouds of ancient Indian tales of love and longing descend to the earth and envelop characters in their icy grasp. The Ramayana epic and the Theyyam performative tradition are seamlessly meshed with a coming-of-age story set in a boarding school.

Mahajan’s debut feature is the only Indian title in the International Film Festival of Rotterdam’s Tiger Competition section. Over the years, two Indian films have won the top award in this section – Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga and PS Vinothraj’s Koozhangal.

This year, nine India-themed films are showing at Rotterdam, which is being held online between January 26 and February 6 because of the coronavirus pandemic. These include Gurvinder Singh’s Punjabi feature Adh Chanani Aaat (Crescent Night), Geetika Narang Abbasi’s documentary Urf (AKA) and Mahesh Narayanan’s Malik, starring Fahadh Faasil.

Meghdoot (The Cloud Messenger) has the qualities of stillness and intensity that are present in dance. The story takes place in 1995, in the pre-cellphone age. The principal setting is a boarding school whose staff is deaf and blind to the agonies of its sensitive wards. The exception is photography instructor Sapru (Raj Zutshi), who encourages his students to open their eyes to the world around them.

As Jaivardhan (Ritvik Tyagi) stumbles through the obstacle course that is adolescence, he lays eyes on the recently enrolled Tarini (Ahalya Shetty) and is instantly smitten. Where have we met before, Jaivardhan wonders, one of the many links the movie draws between a modern-day story and a predestined romance dating back to the beginning of time.

Ahalya Shetty and Ritvik Tyagi in The Cloud Messenger (2022). Courtesy Sanjay Singh FIlms/Mahamudra Collective.

Jaivardhan’s frequent runs-in with his teachers pale before Tarini’s possibly depressive state. Haunted by visions and struggling to keep herself together, Tarini’s anguish is externalised through the Theyyam performances that are spliced into the narrative. The film moves between the present and an indefinable space where dancers enact a tale of a woman who rebels after being wrenched from her lover and forced to marry a covetous king.

As the narrative unfolds, the distance between the epic and the intimate and conventional storytelling and choreographed set-pieces shrinks. While the performers are now on the grounds of the boarding school, Jaivardhan and Tarini are beginning to recede in the mists of the past themselves.

Apart from directing, Mahajan has co-edited Meghdoot (with Bina Paul) and shot the film along with Anil Pingua. The alluring images are attuned to the throb of human feeling and the gentle rhythms of nature. The shots are precisely framed and timed, so when Mahajan and Pingua use handheld camerawork and bodycams in some sequence, the effect is jarring and out of place.

The 148-minute narrative proceeds in a stately manner and holds admirably until its penultimate portions. Meghdoot snaps at the point when Jaivardhan does, losing itself in the clouds that surround the adolescent and threaten to consume him. Mahajan draws back just in time for a satisfying climax that ties together the film’s themes.

The Cloud Messenger (2022). Courtesy Sanjay Singh FIlms/Mahamudra Collective.

The sublime grace of the performers, who have been choreographed by Kapila Venu, matches the admirable efforts of the mostly young cast. Rivtik Tyagi is especially compelling as the teenager trapped on a bridge between the mythical and real and the once-upon-a-time and the here-and-now.

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