India is a complex enough country for Indian directors to make authentic films on. But for film makers with formidable international reputations, this land is clearly an impenetrable labyrinthine; sometimes even a graveyard. They often seem flummoxed by the experience and react to it in two basic and instinctive ways – either with repellence, coded in scatological reference, as in Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, or in a beatific romanticisation of the inner beauty of India, as in Majidi Majidi’s Hindi film, ‘Beyond The Clouds’. Only occasionally, when India is used as a sounding board for an absence of spirituality in the West, as in Wes Anderson’s ‘Darjeeling Limited’, in which the director looks at three American brothers on an Indian train journey, reconciling themselves to personal loss and the consequent bitterness within themselves, does India actually work as a destination that enhances the aesthetics of that auteur.
Interestingly, ‘ Beyond The Clouds’ is also the title of Michelangelo Antonioni’s last film, which he made together with Wim Wenders. It is difficult to say if the title is consciously a reference to the 1996 movie, or whether it draws a world beyond the clouds, to which the traumatised characters in his film may escape. Though set in the geography and language of Mumbai, this film’s cultural references are scattered far and wide. The story is by Majidi, the script writer, Mehran Kashani, is Iranian and the dialogues are in Hindi. As a result, there is clear dissonance in what we see and hear in the movie. When the protagonist, Aamir (Ishaan Khattar), speaks at the police station and at the hospital, what he says to police officers, doctors and nurses, and the manner in which he says them, would not be appropriate in the world of Mumbai. When his sister is taken to prison, he chases the prison van and holds it up, in a way that could be possible in a country with a smaller and homogenised population, but is totally melodramatic and unreal in the Indian context.
‘Beyond The Clouds’ is about an estranged brother, Aamir, and a sister, Taara (Malavika Mohanan), whose destinies intertwine as they reconcile with their orphaned pasts. The film extends Majidi’s obsession with close family dynamics and his perception of how brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, share bonds that seem eerily predestined. Yet, he observes, that in their daily lives, as individuals, they often feel suffocated by these familial ties and struggle to break free of them. Therein lies the pain and suffering of his characters.
Majidi seems to have cast his actors more for striking features in their faces, than for their acting prowess, and his cinematographer, Anil Mehta, has framed them accordingly. Lovingly shot as they turn, gesture and hold eye contact with each other, the director strives to see the beauty of the human soul, underneath the expressions of want, longing and pain. Nowhere is this more evident as in the casting of Bengali Director Gautam Ghose as Akshi, the man who rapes Taara. He is in hospital because she fights back, while she is in prison for having attacked him in self defence. In every scene, Akshi communicates with his liquid eyes; first as he tells Taara that he wants her; then when lust takes over; finally as he struggles for breath under heavy bandages, hovering between life and death. If he dies, Taara will get life imprisonment, if he lives, she may be set free. Even though he knows that the man is his sister’s rapist, Aamir does everything to keep Akshi alive.
It is a film of piquant melodrama, staged in a manner that is quite unlike the style of Majidi. Yet it continues the basic themes in his work. The last shot of the film is two clasped hands outside the prison bars, hands that cannot fit into each other, yet caress, like the indivisible bonds of human relationships that reach out for the moon, and when there is no moon in sight, beyond the clouds that obscure that elusive moon. This is the colour of paradise.