When we first heard that director Majid Majidi was making a Hindi film in India, most cinephiles brushed it off as a hoax. What was the Iranian auteur, an integral part of the Iranian New Wave Cinema, and the director of films such as Children of Heaven, doing in the land of song and dance?
Cut to a year later, and we're seeing Majidi actively promote his upcoming film Beyond The Clouds starring Ishaan Khatter and Malavika Mohanan in the country. The director doesn't speak English or Hindi, but impassionedly conveys through his interpreter his experience of working here, and his praise for his crew.
This is the first time Majidi has made a film outside his country. The director teamed up with veterans from the Indian film industry like composer AR Rahman and cinematographer Anil Mehta to bring to screen this story of a brother-sister relationship. The film, which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, releases on 20 April.
In a brief chat with Film Companion, Majidi talks about how he casts actors, working with composer AR Rahman, and making the film with Indian sensibilities.
Cinema is a universal medium. But for the audience to buy into the world of a film, it must be deeply rooted in a particular milieu. What did you do to bring out the Indianness in Beyond the Clouds?
Yes, it is true, about India particularly. I know India somehow. We have many similarities– Iranian culture and Indian culture. Before production I was here for 3 months, just observing all the locations. I knew about Mumbai. I chose my whole team from India and I came alone from Iran because I know that they are more familiar with this atmosphere and this country. And moreover, I wanted the film to have the colour of this country.
How do you choose your actors? You work with both professionals and non-professionals.
I write the scripts so I know who I'm looking for. I always have the face of the person in mind. After meeting them and choosing them, I start working on driving the things I want from them. To work out things, I need to be more close to them. Of course they have to be talented as well.
… I feel that pearls have been dropped on the street but nobody is there to collect them and utilise them in Indian cinema. Maybe they're too habituated with this and don't observe them properly. Why should we go to studios, close the doors to people and make another superficial world for ourselves?
Your cinema has always been about the realism. But most mainstream Indian cinema is larger-than-life. How do you think people will respond to this film?
Of course, it's a difficult task because people are used to those movies. And we have to make some change in their perspective. But I tried in the script itself to make sure I should also have an audience, showing the reality but also keeping it attractive for them.
When one thinks of your cinema, music is not the first thing that comes to mind. But music has always played a big part in Indian mainstream films. Tell us about working with AR Rahman.
This is my second collaboration with AR Rahman after Muhammad: The Messenger of God. We were in collaboration for more than 1-1.5 years. I knew him through that collaboration, and I enjoyed his work. During that time, we became close to each other. Naturally when I decided to make a film in India, my first choice was him. He's very creative and powerful. He dedicated himself to that work. Other than being a great composer, he's a great person. He's always trying to experience and learn new things.
He has a very good quality; there were many times he composed something and I said, "I don't want this", and he easily let go and started working on other things. He's working with the youth and has a very young team — almost all of them are below 30. It was interesting for me that during work, he would teach them. And he made their creativity awaken from within.
What was your biggest learning as a storyteller from Beyond the Clouds?
The thing which has surprised me and left me very excited is that everywhere in India, in every space, every city, every street, wherever we see–it's full of stories and dramatic life is going on. It always makes me very amazed. It's like a pleasure for me and I feel that pearls have been dropped on the street but nobody is there to collect them and utilise them in Indian cinema. Maybe they're too habituated with this and don't observe them properly. Why should we go to studios, close the doors to people and make another superficial world for ourselves?
WATCH: ANUPAMA CHOPRA'S INTERVIEW WITH ISHAAN KHATTER AND MALAVIKA MOHANAN