Iranian Auteur Majid Majidi on Choosing Bollywood Over Hollywood

Majid Majidi, one of the leading lights of Iranian cinema can warm the hearts of the most jaded among the audience. An influential figure of the second Iranian New Wave, he painted a poetic and humane portrait of life in Iran in the 90s, contrary to its perception in the West following the Islamic Revolution. Beneath the grim settings of his films, is usually a sunny story.

With the 58-year-old Iranian auteur making a foray into Indian cinema with Beyond The Clouds, one can hope for a non-Western gaze.

The film opened the International Film Festival of India in Goa (IFFI) last year. Starring Ishaan Khatter and Malavika Mohanan, about 90% of Beyond The Clouds has been shot in real locations.

When the Iranian filmmaker was in Mumbai to promote his film, he spoke to The Quint about choosing Bollywood over Hollywood and much more. As Majidi’s second assistant director and translator Arta Shadman interpreted Majidi’s answers in English, I reiterated the replies to ensure that not much is lost in translation.

Majid Majidi with Ishaan Khatter on the sets of Beyond The Clouds.

Why India? What are the differences that you encountered in filmmaking between Iran and India?

Between Iran and India, there are a lot of common cultural points. Even the languages - Urdu and Farsi (Persian) share a lot of common words. Whenever I thought of making a film outside of Iran, I always thought of making it in the eastern part of the world. It’s interesting to note that around 25 years ago I received my first international film award for a short film The Last Village in India, in Hyderabad. May be that was a sign. It’s almost been 21 years or so since I have been coming to India for different festivals. All my films that came to India - were successful - Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise.

They didn’t have a big release here but so many Indians seemed to have watched it. I think they watched it on video. I always wonder why these films, despite being so popular were not released in cinemas here. These films had big names like Miramax and Sony Pictures backing them as distributors. Everyone here may have watched them on video after they became popular. I realised that my cinema is appreciated here. Since many years Namah Pictures kept pursuing me to make a film in India.

There are two industries which are professional in the world- Bollywood and Hollywood. Iran is professional too but in India, there is technical competence. I was alone here with the Indian crew. There was no one from Iran with me here. In India, there has been such good technical development, recently. I had good local contacts that facilitated things here.

Iranian director Majid Majidi scoured the streets of Mumbai to shoot Beyond The Clouds in as many real locations as possible. 

You don’t speak in Hindi/English but you chose to make this Hindi language drama. How did that work out?

I wanted to work exclusively with an Indian crew because when you are working here and don’t know the language, it’s a responsibility to translate the sensibilities of the culture in your film. A good consultant helped me avoid the language barrier. I also did extensive research. I know Bombay thoroughly. There is no place in the city that I have not seen. I have been everywhere in this city and my eyes have not missed anything. I have even taken some of the local Bombay people to some corners that they had not seen before. Next time, I will give you recommendations. All this exploration helped me find places that captured the essence of Bombay. And Arta was with me all along (smiles and points at his translator).

Iranian auteur Majid Majidi with Ishan Khatter and Malavika Mohanan, the cast of his Indian film, Beyond the Clouds.

Have you seen Bollywood films?

Yes, but not that much. Let me not comment on that. It’s not my favourite sort of cinema. On the other hand I love films of Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal and the earlier films of Mira Nair.

You’ve been to known to make intimate films but there is a Bollywood swagger in the trailer? Have you moved away from your usual style of filmmaking for Beyond the Clouds?

(Majidi seemed eager to dissociate himself from the Bollywood template). When you watch the film you will see, it is similar in spirit to my other films. For the story of the film, the pace is faster than the gentle films I usually make. It’s a trailer, so they have tried to make it more exciting for the audience. You seem to have seen a lot of my films (laughs). The first part of the film is more fast-moving but the second part of the film is closer to my earlier films, I assure you. The story of the film requires that kind of treatment.

You’ve received numerous offers from Western movie studios. But you always chose to work independently. Now for Beyond the Clouds, you are working with a studio. What changed?

In my previous films, I was the producer of my own films but my financers were other companies. But here I had to go with an Indian producer. Zee Studios was a good collaboration. It is true that when people saw my films in the US, I got many offers from there. But I firmly believe that when you don’t know the culture of a place, a director should not work there. So I didn’t choose Hollywood. As I mentioned earlier, I preferred to work in the east, especially in India. It’s easier for a European to go there and make a film, because there are similarities in their cultures. I find India very familiar. That’s why I chose Bollywood. I generally like to work independently for creative control, it makes for fearless filmmaking.

A still from The Color of Paradise.

Why it is always children (teens too in this case) that you turn to for depicting social reality?

The world of children is very sincere. I find that this world is a bridge to understand and cope with the adult world. Seeing the world through their innocent eyes leads you to surprising, profound observations. Bitter truths become palatable when children utter them and the message can hit home effectively. Children in my cinema help me stay away from cliches in my narrative. Censors can’t really make unreasonable cuts when kids are making a point as opposed to adults.

When foreign filmmakers come to India, they rarely focus on anything beyond the poverty. Danny Boyle did the same with Slumdog Millionaire. Some comparisons are going to be inevitable. What do you have to say about that?

That is a very superficial look at India. The other filmmakers seem to have a more touristic and journalistic perspective of India. So they focus on poverty. I like to examine the binaries between the rich and the poor living in the country. The difference is that my films revolve around human relationships of the working class. This one will also dwell on familial relationships and mundane life. My focus is to demystify cultures, not ‘exotify’ them.

Majid Majidi directs Ishaan Khatter. 

You work with non-professional actors but you don’t use the tools of workshops of readings? How do you extract the performances that you have managed to?

Before my actors come in front of the camera, there’s a lot of preparation that goes into it. Not workshops, for me, casting is key. When I write my story I know which character I need with the specific details. I have seen this character several times in my mind while writing it. The first step is to find that face. Once I select an actor, I analyse them, their body language - how they walk, their quirks. I work with these facets. I even analyse their gaze - at which angle can their look to the camera can be most effective etc. Sometimes a 45 degree angle works, sometimes another one - so I can gauge this just by observing my actors.

I study these subtle movements during the look tests. I focus on details like how much a particular character should smile. If it’s not working, a lot of practice follows. Sometimes my actors don’t know what I am doing with them. That is good for me. He/she doesn’t know which technique I am going to use with him/her. I expect the actor to surrender to me, so I can mould him or her. Professional actors are very conscious of how they look. It’s difficult to tap into that spontaneity, to discover new things and shape them.

For kids it’s completely different, I don’t start out directing them. I play with them. I first ensure that they feel comfortable and safe in the new environment they find themselves in. I wait patiently till they are completely carefree. When a child generally goes to a party, he/she sometimes sits and doesn’t move. People may perceive him/her as a shy, calm kid but the parents will confirm that s/he’s a ‘tornado’.

The child is then analysing his surroundings and does not feel sheltered enough. The mischief of a child is a sign of his comfort. This is when we see who s/he truly is. The same thing happens on set. Sometimes they feel it’s a game, not filmmaking. That’s a win for me.

Did your theatre background inspire these methods?

Absolutely. In theatre, lie my roots. I began performing with a group of amateurs at 14.

A still from Beyond The Clouds.

Any instances you’d like to share of the ‘shaping’ that you mention from the filming of Beyond the Clouds?

There’s a lot to share but I would like to talk about Asha. A lot will be said about Ishaan. The part I want to share with you is around the time that I went for a recce for a location. I saw a little girl walking on the street. I went to her, asked her if I could take her pictures and started clicking her. I instantly told my assistant that she is very good for the character of Asha, one of the characters of Beyond the Clouds. We spoke to her parents and we cast her for this role. It was very difficult for her. She was very removed from this world of filmmaking. She was a girl who had lived on the streets all along. It was challenging to direct her.

A still from Baran.

You had travelled to an Afghan refugee camp for the casting for Baran. What was that process like for this film?

Yes. I did. My process is very long but I am patient and involved. We’ve cast many from the slums but I’m not going to name them and then there were casting tests. Then for the role of the grandmother, she had to speak in Tamil, that was tough. My process is instinctive. Good casting is half the job done.

. Read more on Bollywood by The Quint.Iranian Auteur Majid Majidi on Choosing Bollywood Over HollywoodAseemanand, All Others Acquitted in 2007 Mecca Masjid Blast Case . Read more on Bollywood by The Quint.