Malavika Mohanan was still finding her feet in show business when she came across the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to star in acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s first Indian production. So when Mohanan bagged the lead role in Beyond the Clouds, it was a break she was not going to take for granted.

Mohanan made her debut alongside Dulquer Salmaan in the Malayalam movie Pattam Pole (2014). She has since appeared in two more Malayalam films and a Kannada production. In Beyond the Clouds, Mohanan plays Tara, a young woman from the slums of Mumbai whose world comes crashing down when she is accused of attempted murder. “It is such a powerful character,” Mohanan told Scroll.in. “It is being directed by Majidi sir and on top of that it is such a great character. It could really not get better than that.”

Beyond the Clouds will be released on April 20. The film’s emotional core is the bond between Tara and her 18-year-old brother Amir, played by debutant Ishaan Khatter. “I am so grateful that I got to do something like this,” Mohanan said. “I will never take this for granted even for a minute. There are so many people who would love to be in this situation and I got to do it.”

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Beyond the Clouds (2018).

Deepika Padukone was reportedly among the actresses Majidi had considered for Tara’s role before he selected Mohanan. How did the project come her way? “The whole thing happened in a week and it was quite surreal,” she said.

It began with a call from casting director Honey Trehan, who asked her to work on a look test for a Majidi film. “He [Trehan] told me not to get my hopes to high because other actresses had already given a few look tests,” Mohanan said. “And I thought to myself that I will give it my best shot.”

Mohanan sought the help of her father, cinematographer KU Mohanan. “He was shooting for Raees at the time. I dragged him to Madh Island and we clicked some pictures,” she said. “Later Majidi saw the pictures and wanted to meet me. I did one more look test and got a call three days later saying I was in. It took a long time for it to get into my system.”

For her audition, Mohanan experimented with her complexion. “I remember walking into the makeup shop to buy makeup to darken my skin as I wanted a dusky complexion, which we even did in the film,” Mohanan said. “They had very expensive makeup products. And I remember telling my friend that it was just another audition and should I really spend Rs 1,500 on a foundation, because it is a colour that I would not use. I cannot believe thinking that. The foundation still sits in my drawer.”

Malavika Mohanan in Beyond the Clouds (2018). Image credit: Namah Pictures/Zee Studios.
Malavika Mohanan in Beyond the Clouds (2018). Image credit: Namah Pictures/Zee Studios.

More than anything, Mohanan was star-struck when she realised that she was going to be a Majidi heroine. “I am a huge fan of his work and have grown up in a family where that kind of cinema is consumed,” Mohanan said. “I was so star-struck when I heard about his project. I never thought Majid Majidi would come to India and make a film.”

Tara’s character required a steep emotional graph, which appealed to Mohanan. “Good performance-related roles are so limited,” she said. “I have always wanted to play somebody that I could never be in real life. It is a different experience.”

But that intensity can be exhausting, she added. “Because even if I am happy, I have to go and perform an intense crying scene. Even your body is so confused. As an actor, when you’re doing such intense roles, your emotions are all over the place. I have randomly had breakdowns in the middle of shots for no reason. Even though I loved every moment of it, it was emotionally and physically exhausting.”

Her preparation for the role involved a mix of method acting and leaving room for spontaneity. “All scenes were done very differently,” Mohanan said. “Some scenes came very naturally but you need to work on some scenes. In times like that, method comes into play. Even in a 20th take, you need to keep at it. It is very important to feel naturally or feel something that will take you there. You imagine something else that happened in your life and you are trying to recreate emotion in the scene. Whatever you feel, the audience will feel too.”

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Mazhaye Thoomazhaye, Pattam Pole (2013).