Beyond the Clouds (Ansooy-e Abrha), a shrill drama of Indian slum life, marks a surprising change-of-pace for Iranian director Majid Majidi, famous for his sensitive stories about kids (notably, Iran’s 1998 Oscar nominee The Children of Heaven) and his reverent, epic biopic of the Prophet, Muhammad. Here he follows a brother and sister in their twenties who fall afoul of the law in dangerous, colorful, free-wheeling Mumbai, where anything goes and spunky street boys like the protag Amir live by their wits alone.
This tale of poverty is perhaps closest to the director’s delicate Baran, in which an illegal Afghan immigrant girl disguises herself as a boy to work in place of her dead father. Beyond the Clouds is more openly dramatic, with its poor siblings caught between the implacable law which throws suspects into prison without trial and ferocious vice lords who control drugs and prostitution with impunity. In this toxic environment, children are collateral victims. Attractively lensed by Anil Mehta and filled with perceptive moments, the film is currently making a festival career (London, Goa, Dubai, Palm Springs) on the strength of Majidi’s reputation and his skill at directing actors of all ages.
Though basically a psychological drama set on the fringes of society, the story of happy-go-lucky Amir (Ishaan Khatter, the spirited younger brother of actor Shahid Kapoor) and his divorced older sister Tara (young Malayalam actress Malavika Mohanan) has a deeper side. Both characters are caught up in an inner struggle between good and evil, light and dark, insanity and acceptance of life as it is. Unfortunately, this subtext is laid out so obviously, generally through their reactions to suffering children, that it doesn’t have much force.
Majidi is surprisingly comfortable with the Indian setting and with his characters, for whom he exudes empathy. But the screenplay, written by the director with Mehran Kashani, has its ups and downs and longeurs. A lengthy opening sequence on a motor scooter introduces Amir and his buddy as they confidently deliver drugs to dealers all around the city. They are making money and Amir is getting cocky. When boss man Rahul orders his men to “clip his wings,” they tip off the cops, who bust the boys’ HQ. In a wild chase through a beehive market, Amir is saved by the dour merchant Akshi, played by Bengali filmmaker and actor Goutam Ghose. The scene evokes the chase in Slumdog Millionaire but here, as elsewhere, Majidi lacks Danny Boyle’s eye for startling detail, and his social criticism, though certainly omnipresent, never reaches the pitch of outrage.
Tara, who works for Akshi, is constantly anxious about her street-wise sib, leading to some serious shouting matches between the two. Unneeded exposition, which includes Amir talking to himself out loud, informs us that she raised him after their parents died in a car accident, so maybe that’s why she’s so apprehensive. For his part, Amir is suspicious about how Tara managed to swing a nice one-bedroom apartment on her tiny salary, and she admits Akshi advanced her some cash. Then, in an early turning point, her good/bad boss attempts to rape her and she reacts hysterically in self-defense, hitting him with a rock. The scene is discreetly shot in silhouette behind some hanging sheets and exactly what happens is left to the viewer’s imagination.
After Tara is arrested, the action switches rather predictably back and forth between her meltdown in prison and her brother’s frantic attempts to get her released. The lustful Akshi passes the rest of the film in the hospital, hovering between life and death. If he dies, Tara faces life imprisonment. Ironically, it’s up to Amir to buy him meds and look after the man he hates; later, when the merchant’s aged mother and young daughters turn up from the south of India, he is forced to help them, too. All of which starts turning the young street punk into a better person — though he still contemplates selling Akshi’s 10-year-old daughter to a brothel.
Tara, too, is on the road to redemption in prison, where she befriends a little boy whose sick mom (a coughing and hacking Tannishtha Chatterjee of Brick Lane and Lion) is a lifer, though from the sound of her, it may be a short sentence. It comes as no surprise that she has murdered her husband, a violent drunkard who beat her and brought women home.
Keeping a step ahead of melodrama is a convincing cast, energetically led by the tousle-haired young Khattar, whose noteworthy screen charisma promises well for his future career. In her first Hindi language film, Mohanan is solid, if a little too quick to fly off the handle, as his less-than-innocent sister. In the role of her molester, Ghose is robbed of dialogue by his head injury and bandages, but conveys his suffering and repentance through eyes alone.
Reiterating the theme of good and evil, Mehta’s accomplished cinematography picks up the exhilarating colors of India and contrasts them to despairing scenes in gray and black. An upbeat score by noted composer A. R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire, Raavan) is overused and generally intrusive.
Production companies: Zee Studios, Namah Pictures
Cast: Ishaan Khatter, Malavika Mohanan, Goutam Ghose, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Dwani Rajesh
Director: Majid Majidi
Screenwriters: Majid Majidi, Mehran Kashani
Producers: Shareen Mantri, Kishor Arora
Associate producers: Reza Tashakkori, Angarika Mantri
Co-producers: Akash Chawla, Sujay Kutty, Kanwal Kohli
Director of photography: Anil Mehta
Production designer: Mansi Dhruv Mehta
Costume designers: Payal Saluja, Bibi Zeeba Miraies
Editor: Hassan Hassandoost
Music: A. R. Rahman
Casting: Honey Trehan
Sales: Zee Studios International