The camera draws out and zooms under bypass to reveal a scruffy street rat and his shady preoccupations.
As he vrooms past on his pal’s bike against an endless pipeline to pursue his awry ambitions, Mumbai is too busy to notice the murky, volatile world of its burgeoning, neglected, underclasses.
The opening scene in Majid Majidi’s first Indian film, Beyond the Clouds, is a solid sketch of Mumbai’s distinction as a city of extremes and the starkness under the sparkle.
But the Iranian film-maker — known to voice his social concerns in humane masterpieces like Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise — does not dwell on the disparity as much as juxtaposes it to admire the capacity for redemption and virtue in a hopeless environment.
Majidi acclimatises well to a brand new ethnic landscape. There is universality in his humanitarian vision which bodes well for any kind of cinema focusing on the underdog. Except a distant and synthetic air shrouds his empathy.
Things kick off on a fairly dramatic note.
Aamir (Ishan Khatter), a drugs delivery boy, bumps into his sister Tara (Malavika Mohanan) at Dhobi Ghat at the end of a breathless cops-and-crooks chase, steered by A R Rahman’s scintillating tabla.
What appears to be an encounter is a reunion, the magnitude of which is diluted by Tara’s hysterical outburst and Aamir’s maudlin likening of mothers and moons.
When she is arrested for thrashing her boss over attempted rape, a scene whose graphic ordeal is implied in a splatter of blood staining a row of pristine white sheets, Aamir promises her rescue.
They are close — she practically raised him. We know this because he says it aloud for our benefit in a manner that hardly seems natural. The truth is one never feels a sense of their bond that is treated as granted, an inadequacy that only grows as the siblings spend the rest of the story apart.
Tara languishes behind bars whereas Aamir helps her critically injured boss to recover and admit to his wrongdoing. Where one finds comfort in a sickly inmate’s sweet little son, the other discovers his generous side when the boss’s needy brood shows up at his door.
Both arcs tread the tricky line between well meaning and manipulative but cannot shrug off the grating awkwardness of their serendipitous interaction.
Beyond the Cloud‘s milieu has faint echoes of Danny Boyle’s pulsating Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar-winning rags-to-riches tale emerging out of Mumbai’s underbelly. But its motivations are driven by soul, not survival.
Majidi’s protagonists aren’t in denial of their reality. They are trying to be better than their circumstances. It is a nice thought that doesn’t gain much heft owing to the jarring shift in texture.
At times meditative to the point of floating away, on others adopting a jarringly Bollywood tone, the unevenness is most unflattering.
What is even more surprising is how Rahman’s background music, usually the soul and saviour, swamps the proceedings in excess.
Despite its fickle emotionalism, Beyond the Clouds packs in abundant visual interest across Majidi’s exhaustive recce of the city’s gritty nooks and grand vistas and Anil Mehta’s illustrative photography.
Even indoors, their combined skills weave magic within dimly lit rooms to focus on the face of innocence. Only this time, children — a Majidi specialty — feel like a requirement, not the reality of its narrative.
What works in this manufactured moral tale is Ishaan Khatter’s unripe intensity. Unlike his co-star Malavika Mohanan’s throwing off histrionics, he engages with his inquisitive eyes and roguish smile. There is a freewheeling, bohemian, vibe about him. It is part of his parlous uncertainty and self-aware charm. Alternating between brat and boy, deception and decency, he speaks with a passion that will be heard Beyond the Clouds.