The sound of Malavika Mohanan crying is really the most awful noise I have ever heard in my life. This is a huge pity, because all she does in her debut Bollywood movie Beyond the Clouds is alternate between crying very loudly and smiling beatifically at the children of others.
Of course, this is not Mohanan’s fault at all: She was merely following the script written for her by the critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Iranian writer and director Majid Majidi of Children of Heaven-fame. Mohanan’s mother has told reporters that Beyond the Clouds is meant to be a loose sequel to Children of Heaven, or the story of what happens to Children of Heaven’s Ali and Zahra now that they are all grown up and if they lived in Mumbai instead of Tehran. Beyond the Clouds features Ishan Khatter (Shahid Kapoor’s younger brother) as Aamir, a knife-wielding, drug-dealing bad boy from the hood, and Mohanan as his older sister Tara, who ends up in jail for hitting her attacker with a brick.
I want to tell you a bit more about what the movie is about, but I do not know how: The only thing I can say is that it traces the random sequence of events that follows after Mohanan is arrested for hitting Akshay, while Aamir visits her in jail, visits Akshay in the hospital (to make sure he gets treated and does not die, ensuring that Tara is not charged with murder) and takes care of Akshay’s children and mother who come to care for him.
Look, I was actually pretty excited when I heard Majidi was going to be making a Bollywood film, especially when I heard that he had passed over Deepika Padukone and Kangana Ranaut for the lead in favour of Malayalam actor Malavika Mohanan, who he said suited the character of Tara better. Watching Majidi’s subtle, Oscar-nominated and truly iconic Children of Heaven, about a brother-sister duo and the adventures they get into when they lose a pair of shoes, was a doorway to a whole new world of cinema for me way back when I watched it. It remains one of my favourite movies to this day. My excitement over Beyond the Clouds did wane a little when I read that in interviews ahead of the movie’s release, Mohanan was saying things like, “Majidi sir has a very clear vision for his characters. It started with me losing weight.”
Now, of course, Majidi is not the only one preoccupied with the weight of his women characters: Just last Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival’s 35th anniversary Scarface screening, moderator Jesse Kornbluth asked Michelle Pfeiffer, of all things in the world, how much she weighed during the shooting of Scarface. But it does somehow sting a little extra when the internationally acclaimed darling of film critics Majidi’s foremost priority is the weight of his female lead.
As Mohanan says though, Majidi does have a clear vision for his characters, or at least his female ones. He wants them to meet all the stereotypes around woman characters that we thought really were dead by now in 2018. In this movie, Mohanan is almost raped (check), was married to an abusive man (check), has started doing sex work in a detail that is completely irrelevant to the plot (check) and seems to smile only when caring for or in the presence of young children she can nurture in a kind and maternal way (check).
The fact that Mohanan is locked away in jail for most of the movie is a pretty good metaphor for her role and treatment in this movie, trapped in the age-old stereotypes of what women characters should be: Very beautiful and maternal, barely seen, and heard only when crying.
Khatter’s Aamir, on the other hand, gets a slightly more complicated role, if deliberately including contradictions in plot and personality makes a complicated role, that is. He sells drugs, loves his sister, fights with her and makes her cry, but runs to her in times of need (and also stays in her house). He is kind to children and makes endearing, funny faces at two different kids at different points in the film, but comes very close to selling a girl who bears a startling likeness to Tara into prostitution for money to bail Tara out of jail, he throws the family of Akshay out of his house but rushes to console them when Akshay dies…
Matlab whatever. Khatter gets to do a bunch of things and has the space to exhibit contradictory, if not complex emotions, while Mohanan cries, looks after sick people and bathes babies in jail.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the traps of the weird representation of women that Beyond The Clouds falls into. It also reproduces every boring stereotypical shot there is to take in India. Greasy, curly-haired Aamir and his greasy, curly-haired bad boy friends zoom around the gullies of Mumbai on fast, cheap bikes, dealing drugs with exaggerated cool, swag and secrecy. There is a Dhobi Ghat shot (check), exotic market shot (check many times), crowded streets of India shot (check), flocks of pigeons flying in distress in Bombay due to police chase shot, jumping into running train shot (check), chilling on local train shot (check), even a Holi scene (check). In terms of fetishising the beautiful poverty of India, Beyond The Clouds is the younger, fractionally better-looking brother of Slumdog Millionaire, and the only good thing they have in common are AR Rahman.
We say fractionally better-looking, by the way, because the movie is full of… shall we say interesting shots? Some of them are really beautiful, like the golden toned wheaty outside of the jail Tara is housed in, or of the white birds flying around the misty, serpentine water body Khatter traverses in a ferry, or the unexpected frames where the characters look like they are almost speaking directly into the camera, or all the shots of shoes that make you think of Children of Heaven.
But at other points, you wonder things like if Majid Majidi has just now discovered shadow: It is oddly full of shadow puppetry, and scenes where things happen behind back-lit sheets in dark bedrooms or sunny dhobi ghats. It feels shockingly dated and blase, so much so that you might wonder if a director as acclaimed as Majidi is trying to do something complex here (if he is, it flew right over my head).
There are several shots that make you scratch your head in confusion, like when you stare at the back of Khatter’s head neatly dividing the screen in two halves for so long that you feel almost frantic about missing some deep hidden import. Others, like when Tara and Aamir tilt their heads in perfect alignment to gaze upward at the moon, feel like they would not be amiss in the photo album of a couple honeymooning in Ooty. You feel like telling Majidi that merely introducing shots no other director would does not automatically make the movie very good.
If you are one of those who likes the plot to tie together neatly with resolution at the end of a film, Beyond The Clouds is not for you. It is really, really, really not for you. I do not mind open-ended or abruptly ending movies so much, but I do mind movies that lock their women characters away and make India seem like a vibrant cesspool of fetishable poverty.
Co-published with Firstpost.