Not many in the Mumbai film industry today speak of Salaam Bombay!, which is unfortunate. Mira Nair’s film, made in 1988 and winner of the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, has aged better than some of the other parallel and indie cinema being made at the time. Today, its street-level view of Mumbai feels like a vital bridge from Dharavi and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro in the 1980s to Satya and Slumdog Millionaire in the ‘90s and 2000s.
On the evidence of Beyond the Clouds, I’d hazard a guess that Majid Majidi has seen Nair’s film. The Iranian director’s first film in Hindi feels like an updated version of Salaam Bombay!, with its gritty visual aesthetic and its focus on children living on (or just off) Mumbai’s streets. Its protagonist Amir (Ishaan Khatter) could be an older version of Chaipau, the young protagonist of Nair’s film, his shyness eroded and replaced by street-smarts and cynicism. A brothel is a prominent setting in both films, and the sale of a young girl to a pimp occurs in both. But there’s one big difference: Salaam Bombay! is empathetic but resolutely clear-eyed, whereas Majidi – as with his previous work in Iran – doesn’t shy away from sentiment.
The opening minutes of the film announce that Majidi’s a tourist here, as Amir drives past Mumbai landmarks: Marine Drive, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Gateway of India. When we first meet him, Amir is a bouncy optimist, convinced that the hard drugs he’s selling and the deals he’s making with a scary pimp (Shashank Shende) will be his ticket out of the chawl. It’s difficult not to be reminded of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in the first 30 minutes, not just because the score is by A.R. Rahman, but also because of the propulsion and hustle of the filmmaking. When the police bust in on Amir and his friends, Majidi and cinematographer Anil Mehta construct a breathless chase through gullies and markets, ending in the giant clothes-wash where Tara (Malavika Mohanan), Amir’s sister, works.
All this rude energy is quite thrilling—and a little surprising, if your only exposure to Majidi has been lyrical films like Children of Heaven and The Colour of Paradise. Unfortunately, little that follows in Beyond the Clouds can match up to this passage. Tara is assaulted by Akshi (Gautam Ghose), a co-worker who’s besotted with her, and strikes him in self-defence—all shown as shadow-play behind a flapping sheet in a sea of drying clothes. She’s carted off to jail, where she’ll remain for life if Akshi dies. Amir—whose parents are dead and whose relationship with his sister is complicated—resolves to find a way to get her out of jail, but worse is to come for both.
Even as the misery piles up and the siblings become increasingly frantic, screenwriter Mehran Kashani introduces a key Majidi motif: the innocence of children. Tara takes over the care of her sickly cellmate’s young boy, while Amir, in a strange narrative twist, finds himself looking after the bedridden Akshi’s aged mother (G.V. Sharada) and two daughters (he also buys medicines to keep Akshi alive, so that he can testify to his sister’s innocence). The slow build to the four of them forming a makeshift family might strike you as moving, or you might feel – as I did – that it’s a little too rose-tinted. The preciousness is exacerbated by Rahman’s score, poured over the emotional moments like syrup.
In his first lead role, Ishaan Khatter (half-brother to actor Shahid Kapoor) is compellingly fraught; the only time it’s clear he doesn’t belong to the world his character is from is when Amir speaks to Akshi’s daughter in broken English which isn’t quite broken enough. Mohanan, sidelined in the film’s second half, has to make do with scenes in which her character is hysterical or where the focus is on her young cellmate. Tannishtha Chatterjee, the best-known member of the cast, plays a bad cough. Vishal Bhardwaj wrote the Hindi dialogue, but you wouldn’t have guessed it.
In the final moments of the film, there are extended scenes of Holi celebrations. You can feel Majidi’s delight at being able to capture all that colour and uninhibited movement. His is a cinema of ripeness, and India is a logical place for him to have made a film. Yet, had it not been Majidi making this, it’s debatable whether Beyond the Clouds, which feels like an artily rendered patchwork of stock Mumbai film moments, would have been on anyone’s radar.