In 1998, director Majid Majidi’s “Children of Heaven” was nominated for an Academy Award, establishing the Iranian auteur’s international reputation for weaving disarming power into uncluttered yet poetic, emotionally resonant human stories. Two decades and nine films later, Majidi revisits those themes, but this time, ventures beyond his native Tehran with his first India-based, Hindi language feature, “Beyond the Clouds.” The setting may be a first for the director, but the slum-laced margins of Mumbai also seem like an ideal backdrop for his comfort zone of poignant relationships laced with subtle social commentary.
At the epicenter of the city’s poverty-stricken underbelly is protagonist Amir (Ishaan Khattar). A street-smart twenty-something who has found a skill and some degree of success in drug-dealing for a brothel owner, Amir’s sketchy choice of profession makes for explosive verbal tussles with his concerned older sister, Tara (Malavika Mohanan), who works at a local open-air dhobi ghaat (laundromat). From an extended opening sequence, in which he sidesteps everything from city traffic to police busts as he makes his clandestine transactions around the city, it’s clear that Amir operates with a shrewd spirit and dreams to get rich quick. But his ambitions are derailed when Tara is arrested after her boss, Akshi, attacks her and she hits him with a rock in desperate self-defense, landing him immobilized and unable to speak in a hospital bed.
With Tara facing life imprisonment if Akshi dies without confessing, Amir is left to help keep his sister’s attempted rapist alive if she’s to have any hope for freedom. Things are further complicated when Akshi’s mother and two daughters show up on Amir’s doorstep, compelling him to take them in, too.
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The premise evokes one of Majidi’s signature tropes: it is, at its heart, a story of good versus evil and right versus wrong, heightened by complications that accompany the human experience as identity, integrity, and love are tested by inner demons as well as external adversity. Like several of his former films, the adult characters’ arcs are brought into sharp focus through the perspectives of children, who lift the spirits of their reluctant caretakers; the sheer innocence of Akshi’s daughters, as they smile for selfies and recite ABC’s in broken English, thaws Amir’s hardened exterior in spite of his hatred for their father.
Meanwhile, forming an unexpected maternal bond with the mischievous young son of a sick cellmate (an underutilized Tannishtha Chatterjee) gives Tara a sense of purpose and levity in her otherwise grim surroundings. The film finds some of its most affecting moments in these connections, positioning the kids as moral saviors even as they’re also the unwitting victims of corruption, greed, and systemic injustice.
And yet, despite catering to Majidi’s thematic forte, the film’s scrambled tones and several contrivances keep us from buying fully into its story. Whereas his previous work was steeped in an inherent realism that made any overarching commentaries come across in a more organic fashion, here, there’s a conspicuous, rather distracting clash between subtlety and—possibly Bollywood-inspired—melodrama.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hindi dialogue overflows with exposition; Amir and Tara’s messy past, involving parents who died in a car crash and Tara’s abusive ex-husband, is conveyed in haste over one or two scenes via clunky monologues and ear-splitting arguments. Although Khattar turns in a confident, impressive debut performance, Mohanan is more prone to histrionics, often compromising the authenticity of scenes with unnaturally hysterical breakdowns.
Composer A.R Rahman’s orchestral score, punctuated with piano and tabla interludes, makes for an enrapturing soundtrack in isolation, but its soaring, theatrical swells—not to mention one short, but superfluous and self-referential musical number as a nod to his impressive oeuvre—are ill-fitted to Majidi’s usually more delicate style.
In contrast, legitimately satisfying nuances can be found in Anil Mehta’s symbolic, but mercifully non-stereotypical, cinematography. From sweeping panoramas of the flamingos at the Thane mudflats, to the dim and narrow but bustling alleyways of slum life, Mehta’s camera provides an arresting portrayal of the city and its fringes in all their sensory complexities without slapping on the glossy finishes that could risk glorifying the grit.
Ultimately, while the visuals — along with Majidi’s sincere intentions — keep the film afloat, it never quite finds its footing. Heartrending one minute and heavy-handed the next, “Beyond the Clouds” is in equal parts beautiful and frustrating.
“Beyond the Clouds” is now playing nationwide.Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.