A beautiful metaphor Majid Majidi uses in Beyond the Clouds is the use of birds, captured mostly in flight, littered through the film – flamingos, white pigeons, sparrows and even a hen parked in Amir’s room presented, perhaps, as counterpoints of freedom placed against the trapped lives of the human characters in the film. The graphic in the beginning that declares that these are CG images leaves the viewer a bit sad.

Majid Majidi’s debut feature Baduk (1992) dealt with a brother-sister story thrown in extremely adverse circumstances over this they had no control. Children of Heaven (1996) was about a brother and his sister whose father is too poor to buy them a new pair of shoes. This film was the first Iranian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Beyond the Clouds is also a brother-sister story who live by the sole means they can afford based on the moral values of the seamy world they inhabit. It is a different world where Amir, all of 19, who lost his parents in a car crash and was brought up by his older sister Tara, thinks nothing of making a living off peddling drugs to people filling the underbelly of a Mumbai we have hardly known. His sister Tara, estranged from an abusive husband, works in a dhobi ghat, where, the director suggests she is sexually abused by the dhobi ghat owner Akshi. The brother and sister, estranged because of Tara’s abusive husband, suddenly find each other when he is trying to hide from the police hot on his chase and finds himself in Tara’s rented flat – not as downtrodden as one would expect. But then, it is Akshi who is so “kind”.

Tara finds herself in prison accused of attempting to murder Akshi when he tries to rape her. It is one of the most imaginatively choreographed, picturised and audio-designed scenes of a molestation caught against the sinister sounds of the flapping white sheets hung to dry along rows in the dhobi ghat while the victimiser and his victim are caught in beautiful silhouettes, with the white sheets suddenly stained with a flash of blood. Amir is hell bent on rescuing her from prison which is possible only if and when Akshi, now trapped into a hospital bed without speech or movement, regains his health and confesses to his crime. So, though he is in hiding, he keeps visiting Akshi in hospital to threaten and torture him with dire consequences for what he did to his sistet.

Beyond the Clouds has a story that has no conventional beginning, middle or end. It is more intent on restructuring and redefining the term ‘family’ stripping it completely from its popularly accepted anchoring. Amir suddenly finds himself burdened with the responsibility of Akshi’s family that arrives from Akshi’s village.

It consists of Akshi’s old mother who can speak neither Hindi nor English and Akshi’s two daughters, both still in their girlhood. He ignores them initially but on a night of thunder, lightning and rain, he is forced to bring them into the flat where he cooks for himself but now begins to share with these three odd females of different ages who speak in a language he does not know.

. Slowly, this becomes the ‘family’ he has never known. Things move smoothly till there is a crack in the wall of solidarity – Amir is betrayed by his closest friend Anil and the brothel owner’s goons beat him up black and blue. The shots of Amir and Anil – who suddenly has a change of mind and jumps in to rescue Amir, being beaten up in the slush of the wetlands lacks originality because we have seen much of this before. But it makes Amir vent his anger on his new ‘family’ and they walk out slowly, looking back again and again, confused about why everything had to change so suddenly.

Tara, within the prison walls and its terribly sour surroundings, discovers a bonding with the little Chhotu when the mother is in hospital and then after she dies. This is her ‘family’ within which, Chotu and she have bonded so closely that it drives her to find desperate ways of escape.

Beyond the Clouds is Majidi’s first film to use Mumbai as its setting, distanced in many senses, from Iran, his home ground. Does he discover his ‘comfort zone’ in a city he hardly knows? For a filmmaker like Majidi, it is his emphasis on the tiny things in life and in cinema that matter and what the backdrop is, or what language his characters speak in, which culture they represent, which class or community they belong to do not make much of a difference.

A little girl steps out of a room in a brothel in a seedy neighbourhood while her mother is servicing a customer. The young Amir, all of 19, waiting for his payment against the drugs he supplies to the brothel owner, makes faces at the little girl who is scared to begin with but then flashes a shy smile; Chhotu trying to put back the loosened wheel on his yellow plastic toy car while his mother is carted away to the prison hospital; later, we see Tara trying to repair the toy with a piece of string. Amir brings a new red, plastic toy car for the little boy the next day.

When Amir is trying to escape with the older daughter of Akshi away from his pursuers while the two are enjoying a glass of orange ice fruit from a roadside stall, the girl tries to balance herself aboard the steamer by clutching at his sleeve. Amir turns around to find her juice-stained palm print on his shirt sleeve. In another scene, the woman jailor, watching Tara’s desperation to show Chhotu the full moon on Holi night, filled with the sound and fury of unseasonal showers and lightning, quietly keeps the golden ring she extracted from Tara to help her escape, and leaves..

Akshi’s little daughter dancing merrily behind the curtain Amir has strung to give them some privacy is another such priceless gem. These tiny nuggets of life hidden in the midst of the marginal and the oppressed are scattered right across the film while the audience gets sucked into the happenings.

Anil Mehta’s brilliant cinematography evolves into a character in the film so beautifully it merges into the panoramic space the film runs through. The editing sometimes falters in the hospital scenes where the nurses’ uniforms are much too starched than it is in public hospitals and their behaviour quite cordial - a contradiction of reality.

Akshi’s mother approaching a lawyer to write out a confession on behalf of her bed-trapped son is a bit too melodramatic for comfort. But the most melodramatic punch comes when the middle-aged Akshi declares: “You belong only to me,” to Tara, repeating a cliché we have seen in a hundred masala movies. Rahman’s musical score stands out where we hear the soft notes of the piano but otherwise, it is Rahman after all.

Ishaan Khatter is the new discovery of the cinema world in Mumbai. With his well-toned body and that tattoo of a barbed wire around his arm, his mop of curly hair, his penchant for healthy food habits and his devil-may-care attitude of making it big with his shady deals filled with dread and suspense, brings across a real talent waiting to be honed by sharp directorial skills in Bollywood. Malavika Mohanan tends to go a bit overboard with her ranting and screaming but perhaps, Tara’s life has taught her that this is the only way to be heard. One of the finest performances comes from the senior actress G.V. Sharada as Ashthi’s mother and the girl who plays Asthi’s older daughter with her “little little” English. Filmmaker Gautam Ghosh sticks out like a sore thumb in Ashthi mainly because the character does not fit into the public image he has already established.

Mumbai, the city, in its modern labyrinthine form, offers the ideal environment for a film like Beyond the Clouds that combines several genres in one without confusion. It can tell not one, but several stories of different people who may or may not meet at any point, yet, are affected by the city they live in, albeit in different ways. Can they cope with the stress and the strain the city places them under? Do they cope? How and in what manner?

These questions are raised, and a few answered as well, by Majid Majidi’s unusual film. The last scene shows two outstretched hands, palms one on top of the other, one little and one adult, stretched out through the bars of the prison to catch the showers. This not only points out that not all stories need have a beginning, a middle and an end, but also answers the question the title raises – what lies beyond the clouds.