‘I prefer telling stories of common people,’ says Majid Majidi

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The dream of the Iranian master Majid Majidi is to tell stories like Satyajit Ray did

WHEN I WAS told that filmmaker Majid Majidi couldn’t speak English and an interpreter would have to translate, my heart sank a little. Things get lost in translation, I thought. Here I was, sitting before a man responsible for keeping hope alive through his cinema, and there was so much to ask him. However, merely minutes into the conversation, I realise that Majidi is more than his words. The man who gave us cinematic gems like Children of Heaven (1997) and The Color of Paradise (1999) relies largely on images to communicate his mind. Master filmmaker and one of our generation’s most poignant storytellers, Majidi tells me how he has found a new canvas over the past two years. He shot his latest feature film, Beyond the Clouds (2017), where he tells the story of ever-changing human relationships, in the dirty hideouts and grimey alleys of Mumbai. It wasn’t just the landscape or the spirit of the city that was new to Majidi, most of whose work is set in his home country of Iran. After almost 30 years of making movies, he believes Mumbai made him rediscover his love for cinema. Beyond the Clouds opened to packed houses at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa. Excerpts from an interview with the 58-year-old director:

Beyond the Clouds is your first non- Iranian film in terms of language, landscape and story. How different was it to shoot in a completely new environment?

When I came to Mumbai a few years back, I was bit overwhelmed. What surprised me were the different lifestyles people [led] in the same city. There was a kid without shoes on one side of the road, and one sitting in a plush car on the other. My challenge was to capture the soul of people in the city despite the extreme circumstances they live in. Iran is my home, and I know my country like nobody does. I had to adapt myself to Mumbai. We shot in slums, recreated red- light districts, took the camera through peak hours of traffic. I wanted to make sure I capture both the chaos and the silence of the city, and I think Beyond the Clouds is a good reflection of that.

Your film is about a tumultuous brother- sister relationship under difficult economic and social conditions. Were you worried about glamourising poverty in the city, like many accused Slumdog Millionaire (2008) of doing?

My film is largely about relationships and how they get affected during a crisis. This could be in any social or economic set up. But if you have watched my previous work, I prefer telling stories of common people who go through life in its most basic way, and come out stronger by dealing with everyday issues. My hero has always been from among the people, and not someone who is a larger-than-life individual and doesn’t make mistakes. There are thousands of such people in Mumbai whose story deserves to be told. Their struggle for survival is a real victory and those are the stories that attract me the most.

Tara, the film’s female protagonist, comes across as a victim of her circumstances. Is that how her character was conceived or did it change once you met women from Mumbai?

The core of Tara’s character was always there, but her challenges and reactions changed once I saw how women from this class of society lived. There was a lot of oppression, and sacrifices that they go through and Tara could be representing any of these women in Mumbai. I met a lady who worked in the dhobi ghat for 12 hours before she goes back home and makes food for her family. That’s a life of true courage and I wanted to bring that out in the film. Even in Iran, it is the women in the family that are mostly expected to give up on their desires and dreams, so their husbands and sons can flourish. These women find their own way to live with dignity.

Your films have always been about human relationships and how there is hope beyond all adversity. Is that why you feel people in India are similar to those in Iran in terms of expression?

Absolutely yes. I feel like I have lived in the shadow of India for many years. The idea of family and togetherness is still so alive in this country. We love food and festivals, and so do you. Both India and Iran have been through a lot of social and political turmoil, for years. War has altogether destroyed generations in both our countries, but people still struggle to survive. I haven’t been to places like Kashmir that are still very conflict stricken, but I’m sure even there I will see stories that give you reason to live. Even as a filmmaker, though I grew up on American and European classics, it was Satyajit Ray’s work that influenced me the most. It was my dream to be able to tell stories like he did.

There is an epic moment in the film where your play of shadows meets AR Rahman’s song Muqabala. How was it working with Rahman?

He works at night, so I did not get any sleep for many days. We struggled to understand each other’s language for some time, but he was extremely patient with me. He would always try something new, which was good because many times veterans like him become rigid. He wasn’t so, and it shows in the film.

You also said the star system in Bollywood isn’t something you subscribe to. Why so?

In Iran we work with non-actors, and that’s the realism I am looking to create every time. I did not know that big stars in India come with a lot of demands and expectations. For me, nothing is bigger than the story. It was just easier to work with newcomers because then the story is the hero and not a particular actor.

You are already shooting your next film in India. Is there any advice you’d like to give filmmakers here who look up to your work?

Young filmmakers today have a huge responsibility to depict the truth of society. I always felt cinema reflects real lives and has the power to influence change in many ways. Sometimes I feel I may be hoping against hope because violence and extremism have become so rampant that people have stopped listening to one another. If I had something to tell new filmmakers, all I would say is that keep the soul of your film alive by telling stories that need to be told. India is a land of colour and diversity. Make the people around you the heroes of your stories. Only then will they listen.