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Majid Majidi’s tryst with India

The Iranian auteur was in India to promote his upcoming movie 'Beyond the Clouds'

Award-winning Iranian film-maker Majid Majidi shooting ‘Beyond The Clouds’ in Mumbai. Photo: Namah Pictures/Zee Studios
Award-winning Iranian film-maker Majid Majidi shooting ‘Beyond The Clouds’ in Mumbai. Photo: Namah Pictures/Zee Studios

Nearly 20 years after the Iranian film Children Of Heaven was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the family drama continues to enthral audiences. On Sunday afternoon, it was screened at Lower Parel’s Matterden Carnival Cinemas, which routinely holds screenings of acclaimed international films. This wasn’t their first screening of Children Of Heaven—not by a long shot—but it was the first one where the film-maker, Majid Majidi, was present. After the film ended, actor Shabana Azmi presented the Enlighten Award 2018 to Majidi, an annual prize presented by the Enlighten Film Society to luminaries in cinema. Majidi is its first international recipient.

The 58-year-old was in Mumbai to promote his forthcoming film Beyond The Clouds, which opened the International Film Festival of India (Iffi) in Goa in November and is all set for a worldwide release. Starring newcomers Ishaan Khatter and Malavika Mohanan, the film is set in Mumbai (with Hindi dialogue penned by Vishal Bhardwaj). Its trailer, which was played at the event, suggests a style of film-making different from what we are accustomed to from the Iranian auteur. With energetic shots, chase sequences and a pulsating A.R. Rahman score (this is the composer’s second collaboration with Majidi, after Muhammad: Messenger Of God in 2015), Beyond The Clouds seems to have distinctly Bollywood overtones but appears to be rooted in Majidian realism.

“Before we started shooting, I insisted that all of the locations should be real," he said, speaking in Persian to his translator Mohammed Mirseraji, who addressed the audience in halting English. “You’re from here. You know how crowded it is and how difficult it is to shoot here." About 90% of the film was shot in real locations, with a set standing in for a Mumbai slum dwelling, in the village of Sambhar Lake, Rajasthan. They even managed to shoot at “difficult" locations such as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Dhobi Ghat.

Majidi is clearly proud of the pains taken by his crew, featuring top local talent such as veteran cinematographer Anil Mehta and casting director Honey Trehan. “I have seen many films set in Mumbai and India but I can tell you that you will see the city in a way you’ve never seen," he said. “Not even in Slumdog Millionaire."

Majidi is one of the most recognizable figures of the second Iranian New Wave, a dynamic cultural movement that began after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The First Wave, which began in the late 1960s, threw up figures like Hajir Darioush, Darius Mehrjui and Bahram Beyzai. At the time, these came up as a reaction to the popular Iranian cinema of the time, which was more concerned with catering to populist, bourgeois sentiments than the prevailing artistic tastes and social problems in Iranian society, which in turn was also being shaped by a similar revolution in Persian literature. The Second Wave, which was kick-started by the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi in the 1980s, is said to have emerged as a reaction to the growing austerity and indoctrination of the new, anti-Western regime.

It was in this period that Majidi appeared as the lead in Makhmalbaf’s Boycott (1985), playing a hot-headed young man named Valeh who is imprisoned for his leftist political beliefs in pre-revolution Iran. Having studied at the Institute of Dramatic Arts in Tehran, he had begun his career as a theatre actor, but, by the mid-1980s, was also writing and directing his own shorts and feature films. Critics in the West would go on to note how the new Iranian New Wave bore great resemblance to the neo-realist films that came out of post World War II Italy.

Children Of Heaven, for example, has often been compared to Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 classic, Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves). While it lost the Best Foreign Language Oscar to Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful in 1998, Majidi revealed that the film had already won more than 50 international awards till that point.

At the heart of Majidi’s world view are familial relationships and an unshakeable confidence in the innocent-yet-profound wisdom of children. Beyond The Clouds, like Children Of Heaven, is about a brother-sister duo. “The family institution has always held great importance for me," he said, in response to a question from an audience member about this recurring motif in his work. “Nowadays, the root of the problems of all the chaos in the world comes from bad families. If the families can be okay, then society can be okay."

Beyond The Clouds releases worldwide on 20 April.

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