The sky is clear and a strong breeze is rustling the white drapes at the set of Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s first Indian production, Beyond The Clouds. There is both calm and bustle as the shoot near the Versova jetty in north Mumbai winds down for the day. As the crew members dismantle the set, the celebrated Iranian filmmaker sits back to receive journalists who have been waiting to interview him ever since he started shooting in the city on January 23.
Majidi’s ninth feature film has been produced by Shareen Mantri Kedia and Kishor Arora from Eyecandy Films and Zee Studio business head Akash Chawla. The story of Majidi’s Indian debut is a closely guarded secret. The press note describes the themes as “the adoration of love and life” and “nuanced human relationships”. The movie stars debutant Ishaan Khatter as a young man from a Mumbai slum, and is in Hindi and English.
Majidi seems to have taken in his stride the complications of shooting outdoors in Mumbai, which can dishearten the toughest of film crews. “In Iran, when we take permission to shoot outdoors, it is valid for several locations; here, if we take permission for a particular corner of a street, we are restricted to shoot there and cannot move,” Majidi told Scroll.in. “For example, if we have a permit for two days and for some reason we are delayed and the shooting extends to a third day, then people come and object and we have to renew contracts. It delays our work and makes shooting cumbersome.”
It is the only stumbling block the famed filmmaker says he has faced as he prepares to travel to Jaipur for the next schedule. “I don’t like to shoot inside studios and prefer outdoor locations,” the 57-year-old director said. “India is a lovely place and it has a lot of potential for so many stories to flourish. But sadly Bollywood films don’t explore so many themes.”
Majidi’s previous films, including Children of Heaven (1997), The Color of Paradise (1999), Baran (2001), The Song of Sparrows (2008), and Muhammad: The Messenger of God (2015), have explored themes of love, friendship, matters of faith and human struggle. In between working on features and documentaries, Majidi has been trying to make a film in India for several years. He almost did, in 2007, for the producer UTV Movies, but the project went nowhere.
Muhammad: The Messenger of God, which explores the childhood of Prophet Muhammad, does have an Indian connection: its music has been composed by AR Rahman. The Oscar-winning composer is collaborating again with Majidi on Beyond the Clouds, which is aiming for a year-end release. “So far we have only thought of the background score, but we could include songs if we feel the need to later,” Majidi said.
Beyond the Clouds could have been set anywhere in the world, but it also needed to be located in India, Majidi said. “India gave me the proper feeling I had envisaged for the story,” he said. “I strongly felt the connection would resonate more if the film were made in India.”
How did he go about assembling the cast and local unit? “I met casting director Honey Trehan when I was looking for actors,” Majidi explained. “I am fortunate to have met him, he is a thorough professional who helped me a lot to bring together the best talents for this project.”
Despite his hectic shooting schedule, Majidi has found the time to keep himself updated on Bollywood, even though his own cinema is anything but escapist and feel-good. “To a great extent, I have been closely watching the recent Bollywood films and am familiar with the atmosphere,” Majidi said. “I have visited several locations where films were shot in the past and have spent time in studios. It is my complaint against Bollywood filmmakers that they don’t try to portray the realistic side of the world that surrounds them. They are not utilising the country’s potential to its fullest.”
Majidis own influences include such directors as Satyajit Ray, Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini. “I loved their films and their realistic elements gave me a tremendous feeling of happiness,” he said. “I was inspired by their films to make mine.”
Majidi enjoys a tremendous reputation in Iran as well as across the world. While he has rarely courted controversy like some of his contemporaries, including Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi, he did have his share of trouble with his film on the prophet of Islam. Muhammad: The Messenger of God was supposed to have inaugurated the official Iranian film festival, Fajr, in 2015, but it was pulled out at the last minute due to reported technical problems. The film was eventually released in Iran, and was selected as the country’s official entry for the foreign language Oscar.
Iranian directors like Majidi face tremendous challenges from strict censorship codes. In 2010, Panahi was banned from making films for a 20-year period for his activism and bold explorations of social and political restrictions in Iran.
Majidi was typically reticent about the issue of political interference in the arts, merely saying, “As far as politicians are concerned, they are not well accustomed to the film world and they don’t have an artistic mind to be able to tackle most things related to cinema.” It is just the kind of reply we expect from a director known for delicacy and subtlety in all his films.