"For 45 minutes, as I tried to stay afloat, I prayed and apologized to my parents, as I was sure that I will not make it out alive,” Rahat Mahajan says about the near-death experience 11 years ago that moved him to make his first feature, Meghdoot. “When I survived, I realised life is small and fleeting. I wondered what the purpose of my life is and what I can leave behind as an artist.”
The 35-year-old filmmaker had travelled to Thalassery in Kerala in 2011 to document Kalaripayattu practitioners. A riptide almost drowned him until his friend Shiva Keshavan returned with a boat. Mahajan wove this experience into Meghdoot—the only Indian title that competed for the top Tiger prize at the International Film Festival Rotterdam last month—in a crucial scene when Tarini (Ahalya Shetty) is drowning while her boyfriend Jaivardhan (Ritvik Tyagi) struggles to save her.
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Steeped in Hindu mythology and traditional Indian performing arts, Meghdoot crosses Jaivardhan and Tarini’s boarding-school romance with the saga of their past lives as yakshas in love. When the demon-like Dashananan coveted Tarini, they were separated, following which Tarini set in motion a timeless curse.
If Jaivardhan and Tarini’s present-day track is reminiscent of Nagesh Kukunoor’s coming-of-age film Rockford, a cosmic struggle of a lover challenging destiny had previously been seen in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.
Mahajan’s labour of love, which was set to have its Indian premiere in the competitive Indian Gold section of the recently cancelled Mumbai Film Festival, is meticulously art-directed and shot, with Mahajan himself serving as production designer, co-cinematographer and editor. He has also co-produced the film along with his friend and business partner Nalin Agarwal, and Sanjay Singh (who also produced Udaan).
Mahajan and Anil Pingua shot Meghdoot between 2019 and 2020 at his alma mater, the Lawrence School Sanawar in Himachal Pradesh and adjoining areas. He had previously shot some footage at the Ardh Kumbh Mela held at the Mahakaleshwar Ghat in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. “I had stopped combing my hair after the incident in Kerala,” Mahajan says. “My dreadlocks gave me access to the ghat to film the naga sadhus as civilians are not allowed to enter during the royal bath.”
The shoot was gruelling. “I camped at the school for months before primary shooting began, figuring out the shot set-ups,” he says. “We just had 37 days of primary shoot at the Lawrence School. We had limited time with the school kids to participate because they had classes in the day and games in the evening.”
Mahajan, who’s also trained in yoga, sees parallels between Hindu myths and South American traditions. His wife, Gloria, has South-American ancestry. His son, Vanni Sāt, was born at a natural birthing centre in Kerala during Meghdoot’s edit, making the film an intensely personal project.
Among Meghdoot’s inspirations was Kalidas’s poem of the same name, in which a yaksha asks the clouds to send his message of love to his wife. The English title of the film is “The Cloud Messenger”.
Also referenced is the poem Ritusamhara. “So as Tarini and Jaivardhan’s romance develops, the film has a yellow hue, resembling summer,” he explains. “This moves into a dark palette, with clouds and rain coming in, after Dashananan enters. We then move into wintery grey, as Jaivardhan longs for Tarini and sets out to end the curse. By the end, there’s spring.”
This visual grammar is informed by Mahajan’s screenplay, inspired by the four mukhuragas from the Natyashastra and their corresponding rasas. Tarini and Jaivardhan’s initial parts in the film evoke the rasas: adbhut (wonder), hasya (joy) and sringar (love). Much later, karuna (sorrow), veera (determination) and raudra (anger) appear when Jaivardhan begins his hero’s journey. Of course, Mahajan adds, Joseph Campbell and his cross-mythology writings also inspired the film.
With Meghdoot, Mahajan wanted to place “Indian classical arts against a European, Gothic backdrop”. Founded in 1847 by a British military officer, the Lawrence School, and the cold climes of Kasauli, provided a brooding atmosphere for the film’s vibrant and ritualistic Indian classical performances that create a mythic interpretation of Tarini and Jaivardhan’s relationship.
The sutradhar is played by Kutiyattam artist Kapila Venu, who begins the film narrating the Tarini-Jaivardhan lore. Kathakali dancer Rajeevan Peesapali appears as Dashananan, often seen by Tarini during hallucinatory episodes. KN Lakshmanan stars as the Theyyam, who invokes Tarini’s spirit from beyond the grave.
Another Kathakali artist, Sadanand Bhasi, represents Hanuman. Bhasi’s role is connected to the local legend of the Monkey Point Temple in Kasauli, according to which Hanuman had stepped on the temple’s location while flying to Lanka with the Sanjeevani herb to help save Lakshman’s life.
Bits of these performances were shot in other areas in Himachal Pradesh, such as the Arki Fort, Sujanpur Tira Fort, and the forests of Andretta. Central to Mahajan’s intricately woven film is a tree, inspired by the one that once existed at the Lawrence School and was later cut down. At nearby Kangra, they finally found two entwined banyan trees which beautifully encapsulate Jaivardhan and Tarini’s love.
Mahajan began writing a bildungsroman-like screenplay inspired by his memories of the Lawrence School, shortly after he had finished working as an assistant on Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey. A year after his accident in Kerala, Mahajan joined the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles as an M.F.A student. Around this time, he made a short film, Istifa.
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Even back then, Mahajan, who developed an interest in drawing and Hindu myths while he was in school, wanted to combine North Indian and South Indian storytelling practices in his film. “I wanted to make a film that consciously interacted with theatre and did not use it as a decorative or didactic element,” he says.
Therefore, the age-old Sanskrit theatre form Kutiyattam made its way into Meghdoot, for which Mahajan’s own poems were translated into Sanskrit and Malayalam for the narrations by Venu and Peesapali. He additionally took note of Venu’s rapidly changing expressions, while editing in reference to the parallels Sergei Eisenstein drew between montage theory and Kabuki theatre.
“I am not interested in Indian mythologies from a point of arrogance or in a nationalistic way,” explains Mahajan, who is now preparing to make a Bengal-set film about the scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose. “I see it as my personal gateway for a universal cosmology of mythologies, which is what all my subsequent films will be about.”