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Aiming For The Stars

Team Box Office India talks to the team of Beyond The Clouds, including internationally acclaimed director Majid Majidi, the lead cast Ishaan Khatter and Malavika Mohanan, producer Shareen Mantri Kedia from Namah Pictures, and producer Sujay Kutty from Zee Studios, about their upcoming film

Box Office India (BOI): How did the journey of Beyond The Clouds start?

Majid Majidi (MM): It started just like everything else does, from a starting point. For a long time, I wanted to start working on a film in India. And then, we met with Shareen and her company, which helped us fulfil this dream. I wanted to do something like this also because of the friendship between the cultures of India and Iran. When the opportunity came, it was really great. India is a very lively country, especially Mumbai. Love is always flowing here. Nowhere in the world can anyone ever find a city like this. It is full of stories and entertainment and drama. Sometimes, I wonder why this rich culture is not reflected more in Indian cinema. This atmosphere should be showcased more.

BOI: Mr Majidi, is this a film for the Indian audience or is it a film based in India for the international audience?

MM: It is an international film but it is an important film for the Indian audience too. That is why I have chosen to make it in Hindi. And the plot that we talk about in the film, the story and the relationships, is an international plot. Those are the emotions that everyone relates to. That is why it is based on Indian actors and the story is the journey of their characters.

BOI: Shareen, how did Namah Pictures come on board for this project?

Shareen Mantri Kedia (SMK): We have always been huge fans of Mr Majid Majidi’s cinema and have followed all his films. One of our favourite films is Children Of Heaven. We were actually chasing Mr Majidi for quite a while to come and make a film in India. Eventually, when he was free of his previous project, things started falling into place slowly. He started doing his research and we started developing the subject. Once that was done, we started casting for the film and then everything else just took off. It’s like it was meant to be.

BOI: Speaking of casting, how did you select Ishaan Khatter and Malavika Mohanan?

SMK: One of the first drafts that Mr Majidi came to India with prompted us to look for the character of Aamir. He wanted to cast that role first. And then we got Ishaan to play the part. We had approached Honey (Trehan) to do the casting. The first actor, the first boy Honey showed us for this role was Ishaan. And that was it. We hadn’t seen anyone before and didn’t see anyone after that, for the character of Aamir. Honey had sent his picture while Mr Majidi and I were at dinner. Mr Majidi said let us meet the boy tomorrow. When we did, Ishaan totally charmed us.

Ishaan Khatter (IK): (Cuts In) Sorry to interrupt. I had no prior knowledge of this film and of the fact that Mr Majidi was making a film in India. I got a call from Honey Trehan with whom I had worked as an assistant director on the film Udta Punjab. He called me and said, ‘I want to speak to you about a film.’ When I did meet him, he told me, ‘Ishaan, there is a film. Do you know who the director is?’ I said that I wasn’t aware of it. Then he became all dramatic and said it was Majid Majidi. And that was that. If I had been wearing a hat, it would have flown off my head! (Laughs)

I have always been a huge admirer of Majid sir’s work and I had watched three of his films at the time. Then I met him for the first time, three days after the initial meeting with Honey. I met with the entire team; even Shareen was present along with Kishor sir and other representatives of Namah Pictures. We met for about 5 minutes with Mr Majidi present, and they said they wanted to see me in an audition shoot. This was interesting because they didn’t give me a script, per se. They asked me to go out to real locations, film the audition and interpret the character in my own way, for which I was given a small brief of two lines.

I was told only a little about the story and the character. They told me this was the nature of the scenes in the film; I had to do them my way and I could improvise the rest. We started that very evening and went on to shoot till the next day. I submitted the footage and he was meant to see only 6 minutes of it but I was told later that he actually saw the whole 50 minutes of the footage we had shot.

I am told this is very uncharacteristic of him, but I am told he also said, ‘Finalise him.’ All this happened in a day and it was quite surreal and life-changing for me. I received a call later that evening and I wasn’t expecting to get the part at all. But Honey sir told me to go up to the roof of my building and scream out that I was the lead actor of Majid Majidi’s film. That’s how it happened for me.

BOI: And what about Malavika?

SMK: I think she should answer this question.

Malavika Mohanan: My story also starts in a similar way to Ishaan’s. I got a call from Honey Trehan, quite late one night. I found that a little odd but picked up the phone anyway. He told me to send him some pictures of mine very urgently. I asked him what for but he said he would tell me later. Honey sir actually loves building suspense (Laughs). I did send him the pictures and he replied, asking me to meet him first thing at his office.

I went to his office and he does this ‘drum roll’ before the big finale. He said there was this film for Majid Majidi, after which he paused to watch my reaction. I was dumbstruck. I had a vague idea about the project. I had heard about it but was not sure it was really happening. He gave me some details and told me a little about my character. Honey sir said he personally saw the character of Tara in me but wanted to do a look-test anyway.

The next day, I donned the look of the character and interpreted it in terms of what she would wear, what she would do, and got some pictures clicked. Within an hour of sending them to him on email, he got back to me saying that Mr Majidi wanted to meet me the next day. Everything was happening so fast! I found out much later that only 10-15 days were left for the shoot to start and they had not yet met anyone who could play Tara.

I met Mr Majidi and I was so awestruck, I couldn’t speak. I just kept listening to what he was saying. We did one more look-test, where Majidi sir was present and I got a call after 3 days, when Honey sir told me I had landed the film.

BOI: Ishaan and Malavika, this is a first for both of you. Did you have any apprehensions about playing de-glam roles in your debut film?

Malavika Mohanan: It was just such a pleasure to work with Majidi sir. I had watched many of his movies while growing up. I had watched Baran, Children Of Heaven, Colours Of Paradise and a few more. I was very aware of what ‘Majid Majidi’ meant, what his cinema is like. I personally love his films. So, just getting to work with Majid Majidi was enough. I had only one focus and that was doing a film directed by him. Everything else was out of focus for me. As an actor, you always want to work with good directors but with Majidi sir, it was as good as it could get.

IK: Like I said before, I have seen some of his films and have always been an admirer of his work. Anybody who has seen his work can see that it is always very humane and it leaves a very deep impression on you. I saw this as an opportunity to be a part of something that really meant something to me. As an actor, the best thing I could do for myself was to work with a director like him, to set the foundation, the graph, just right.

I think your first film really sets the tone for the kind of work you will be doing in future. It is essentially your first impression and so I thought it would be the best thing I could do for myself. And more than anything, I was so consumed by the story that I felt very strongly that it is a universal film, like Mr Majidi’s previous films. It is also a first of its kind, it is a Hindi language film and the first Indian film by Majid Majidi.

It is a very unique film. One cannot classify it as an offbeat film or a niche film. I prefer not to label films. I feel this is a very universal film that will connect with Indian and international audiences alike. For me, personally, I thought it would be a developmental experience more than anything else. And it ended up being so much more than that. What I received from this man, Mr Majid Majidi, was more on a human level than as an actor. When I met him the first time, I sensed an aura about him and that gave me this great sense of faith. It felt like the right thing to do and I went with that.

BOI: Sujay, how did Zee Studios decide to associate with this film?

Sujay Kutty (SK): It was Mr Majid Majidi himself and him making his first film in Hindi in India without knowing the language… that itself is such a unique proposition. I am sure that people have seen his movies earlier but when you see this film, you will find the connection and see that this is like any Hindi movie. It is like our own cinema. And he has shown Bombay – I still like to call it Bombay – in a way nobody has seen it before. Every frame, every scene he has shot is beautiful. It is no less than a portrait or a fabulous painting. A good story with great people makes a great story. That’s what makes this film special.

BOI: Mr Majidi, since this is a Hindi film shot in India, did you face any language barriers while making it? Were there any logistical issues while dealing with the screenplay or the dialogue?

MM: I have been familiar with Indian culture for a long time and have spent a lot of time in India earlier. But, yes, it is a big risk to make a movie in another language and another country. Now, when I see the final picture, not only this film but all my films, I feel more scared as I wonder how I did it. It was like being in the ocean when the film was going on around me and now that I am out of the ocean, it seems unreal that I finished this task.

It was the outcome of my good group, from Zee Studios to Ishaan and Malavika to Namah Pictures to the other actors, that we have reached here today. Since this film was based on Indian culture, I didn’t choose anyone from Iran to work on it. I chose my whole team from India and they have all been very helpful.

My first challenge was to get to know Mumbai very well. So, I started roaming around and visiting new places in the city. I may now know some places in Mumbai that even people residing here will not know. In one location, even my cameraman said he had lived in Mumbai for 20 years but had never visited this place before. All these factors plus the good acting of my cast and hard work of my crew fulfilled my desire to do this job. I hope Indians will like this film, which is a reflection of real life in Mumbai.

BOI: Usually, when people make films with India as their backdrop, they are based on the exotic appeal that India has or showcasing poverty-ridden India. Your film looks different. Was that a conscious decision?

MM: When I saw Slumdog Millionaire, I felt that they had added the tourist perspective in the film. It was like the life of Indians witnessed by the tourists who come to India. I wanted to learn about Indian culture and then start making the film. I know about Satyajit Ray’s cinema and I like it very much. India has a very rich culture and it is a dramatic country and if you go to any place or any street, you will find a story.

Cinema has two aspects, one is industry and the other is art. Bollywood focuses on the commercial point a lot when it comes to films, but I just hope someday the films here will reflect the art and the reality, the real life and the culture of the Indian people in cinema.

BOI: Given the language barrier, did you face any issues understanding the director’s vision or putting it on camera?

IK: I have to credit the production for having an interpreter at all times on the set who would very efficiently translate what Majidi sir would want of us. And in the days leading up to the shoot, I stayed around him as much as I could, and that helped get to know him and get a sense of him. So, what happened was that in the other half of the shoot schedule, I got an understanding of him about what he wanted from me, especially in the context of a scene. So, when he would give us instructions, it would be fairly easy to interpret what he wanted.

There are certain key words that he uses. He speaks basic English but he is a man of a few words and he chooses his words very carefully, and they are very effective. Sometimes, he would come to me and interpret without his translator in English and there were also times when he would give me elaborate instructions. I would instinctively know what he was looking for without the translator having to finish the statement. That was the kind of equation we built.

There was no information lost in the process of translation. He made sure his team understood his instructions. I have realised that whenever there are a lot of lines, it could get confusing. Less communication means more efficient communication. I don’t think there was a language barrier. Also, the language of cinema is such that you tend to understand each other even through body language.

Malavika Mohanan: We had a really amazing translator on the set, Artha, who was also assisting Majid sir. He had a very strong sense of what Majidi sir wanted, so he also knew the meaning of the words sir was saying, not just the literal translation. He knew exactly what had to be conveyed to the actors. That really helped. That was one of the most crucial parts, because he was connecting us, language-wise, with Majidi sir.

Initially, I hadn’t spent much time with him, prior to filming. I was still getting to know him when we began shooting. It was through the process of shooting that I got a sense of him as a director, what exactly he wanted us to do and what he liked and certain mannerisms. I love his work ethic. He is very disciplined on the sets and he wants others around him to be very disciplined. He wants everyone to be on time, to know our lines by heart and to be prepared. It was this amazing thing that I learnt from him.

Initially, the language did confuse me, but the whole experience was new for me, the whole process. After a point, I would finish a shot and I knew exactly what he thought of it just by looking at his expression. It is not that he was not vocal; of course, he was. But, when you get to know someone, you also get to know what they want. The rapport gets stronger. There was no lack of clarity due to the language.

BOI: Apart from Mr Majidi, there is another legendary name, AR Rahman, attached to this film. Can you tell us how he came on board?

SMK: He has already worked with Majid sir, for his film Muhammad. They have a great working relationship and a lot of fondness for each other. We love him and his music and for us it was a great thing. Mr Majidi knew from the beginning that he was going to do the music for the film. And since they already had a working relationship, it was very easy for them to communicate. He knows exactly what he wants. He understands the flavour of the film so well that there was nobody better than him.

BOI: Mr Majidi, can you throw some light on working with AR Rahman?

MM: We have been working with each other for almost two years, since my previous film. And during that period, we built a very special relationship. He is a gifted artiste and a very good human being and a very humble person. His cooperation was great. Sometimes, he would come for something and I would say no. He would discard that and start doing other things. He is a very hardworking man and he never hides behind his name. He puts all his attention into doing his work with full focus.

He always wants to experiment and artistes like that are always in an ascending direction in terms of progress. He creates music for the youth and he is building a very good generation, in his own way and it is brilliant to see someone do that. Most of his fans are, on average, below 30 years old and it is amazing. He is building a great platform for Indian music with his creations.

BOI: Given its unique subject, how are you promoting the film?

SK: The uniqueness in the film is about the language in which Majidi sir is making the film. Otherwise, the story and the plot are universal. It is a film associated with warmth, relationships, love, hatred, fighting and all of it together. That is something that is normal. You take it as normally as you take other films. The film has two big names attached to it, Mr Majidi and AR Rahman. It is like any other film but we are pushing it in a bigger way. Zee has a large network and the entire network strength is available to us to promote the film.

BOI: Given its special brand equity, are there any special releases overseas?

SK: We went to a lot of festivals and it has been the opening film at many of them. We have seen a unique audience there and we received a standing ovation. The uniqueness of the film has been clearly conveyed, in India and across the rest of the globe. We are doing the film overseas as well, we have a huge set-up, network, for Zee as well.

BOI: What was the experience like, shooting in the interiors of Mumbai? Did you face any challenges?

SMK: It was just like any other film. We were a great team, we had great people in our team, we had a good security system to manage the crowds and everything else. For Majid sir, it was a new experience because when we apply for permission, it usually takes two or three days. He actually explored a lot of places which we, who live in Mumbai, wouldn’t visit. I myself haven’t been to these places and, thanks to Majid sir, I wanted to see more. We went to this place called Sewri; it was new to me but we ended up going there because of him.

IK: As an actor, I would say it is beneficial to your performance. Interacting in a real environment changes the scene. It adds an element and spontaneity that you can’t simulate. It becomes very palpable and real, and adds a new dimension. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

SMK: And Mr Majidi loves real locations. He looks only for real locations.

IK: Sometimes, he just places a camera in an environment, without asking people to move out of the frame. I think that is amazing because you get to see Bombay as it is. We were shooting in Versova; there was a fish market. He just placed the camera there and he said, ‘All right, we are going to shoot with this camera.’ That was unprecedented. Nobody looked into the camera, nobody disrupted the shot; in fact they reacted realistically and naturally to what we were doing in front of the camera. It became a real moment and I think that is just phenomenal. I can barely distinguish between the shots where he has juniors in them and moments which are with real people. It is fascinating.

BOI: We are just a week away from the film’s release. What are your expectations from the film?

MM: I can’t really say but I know that people liked it quite a lot at the festivals. I am excited to see how the audience reacts when they watch the film. It is also exciting for me to know that a lot of Indian people know about me. My friends were travelling in a rickshaw and the driver heard them talking about me and they said he knew about me. It was amazing to see that, so I am hoping that people will like my film too. I hope it will penetrate the hearts of Indians.

IK: I have a lot of faith in Majidi sir, in the film he has made, and I felt a lot of reassurance while we were travelling with this film. I have been to four countries and people of various nationalities have reacted to the film in a similar manner. I feel it is a universal film but essentially a Hindi language film, about Indian characters. I feel it has a very strong grasp over our culture and our people. I am equally excited to see how it is received both in India and internationally.

SMK: I am very excited about the worldwide release. It is a Hindi language film, it is a first of its kind and it is in India. The subject is universal, so I hope it connects with the audience.

Malavika Mohanan: I have been a fan of everybody associated with the film… Majidi sir. I have loved Rahman sir’s music, I find it very inspiring, I have grown up listening to his music. I love Vishal sir’s work, he has written the film for us. Anil Mehta as well; I have known him since I was a baby, he is my father’s friend. From Shareen to Zee, I feel everybody is very talented in the team. It has been made out of love and I am waiting to see how people react to this product of love.

SMK: It is a film that is all heart.

SK: It has been made with a lot of passion and fun. I want to take it higher.

IK: Take it to the universe… doesn’t that mean Beyond The Clouds! (Laughs). That was a smart one.

BOI: Mr Majidi, will we see you making more films in India?

MM: Yes!

 

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