Majidi with crew on the film's set in Versova
Mid-day goes on a Yari Road set with Iranian maestro Majid Majidi, who’s here to make his first Indian film
Mayank Shekhar (MID-DAY; March 5, 2017)

Supple belly, a thick moustache, sitting in a make-shift tent, gently caressing religious beads between his fingers, this calm, soft-spoken gentleman could pass for any other genial desi Uncleji in Versova. And since we’ve driven down serpentine, narrow gullies of Yari Road — arguably the armpit of Mumbai, but very much the heart of Bollywood — good chances are he’s a filmmaker.

Everyone on Yari Road is a filmmaker, arent they? An open space off Versova Beach has been taken over by metal roads with white cloths fluttering. It is a film set all right. But business as usual. Nobody really disturbs a film shoot in these parts. It could be for anything feature.

Except, this is slightly more historic than that. The genial man before me with a zen-like aura around him, is arguably the world’s most acclaimed filmmaker, the Iranian Majid Majidi, 58, to be making his first film in Hindi, and partly in English — both languages he doesn’t speak. I can spot a few familiar Persian words while chatting with him through his translator Jawaid. Beyond the Clouds, produced by Indian companies, Zee and Eyecandy Films, has an all-desi cast and crew.

Majidi has essentially recreated a dhobi ghat (an open-air laundromat) in Andheri to finish off remaining portions of a sequence he shot at Mahalaxmi’s Dhobi Ghat. While there isn’t much buzz on this Versova film set, the excitement in the local press, in particular, has been palpable. Only a few weeks ago, Majidi had held the ‘mahurat’ shot of this film with Ishaan Khattar (actor Shahid Kapoor’s half-brother), who makes his debut with the Persian maestro. Bollywood star Deepika Padukone had expressed an interest in the  film. She’d done a ‘look test’ for the female lead’s part, images of which had leaked online. It didn’t quite work out for Padukone. She’s already working on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati. Majidi prefers his actors to be ideally present throughout the film’s shoot, and not for their portions before the camera.

Investigating further on Majidi’s method, I realise, he doesn’t write a script, and then recce for locations. It’s the other way round. He visits locations and hopes a script will emerge! Shareen Mantri Kedia, the producer on the set, tells me, “Majidi has been coming to India for about two and half years. We’ve taken him to various parts of the country. Eventually, he settled on Mumbai, and through places he went, he found a story to tell.”

The filmmaker, who burst onto the international scene with his phenomenal debut, Children Of Heaven — that, I reckon, unfairly lost out to Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful for the best foreign film Oscar in 1998 — is a humanist filmmaker. He represents the best of Iranian contemporary cinema, that’s rich in realism, poetry, and finely under-stated, allegorical storytelling, involving lives, mainly of the marginalised, and the under-class.

Ever since Children Of Heaven, Majidi’s films have been staple fare at top film festivals, besides living rooms of film buffs. Much in line with a full constellation of star-directors from Iran — right from Majidi’s mentor of sorts, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar), now his daughter Samira (Blackboards); late Abbas Kiorastami (Close- Up); Jafar Panahi (Taxi); Asghar Farhadi (A Separation)… It’s an astoundingly growing list of world-class talent from a country that supposedly lives behind an iron curtain.

Majidi recalls, “Until people began to watch films from Iran, they felt it was a harsh place. Their views changed drastically once these pictures were screened.”

He ascribes the rise of the Iranian New Wave in cinema to the advent of the Iranian Revolution (1979), when the US-backed Shah of Iran was thrown out. Chronologically speaking, he may be right. But Joe-public really took notice of Iranian movies across the world only in the mid to late '90s. Majidi agrees. It’s around the same time that he and several other top directors stormed the global scene. The last time I watched a Majidi film on the big screen (The Song Of Sparrows) was at the Berlinale in 2008. The film itself, although lovely and lyrical no doubt, was very predictably Iranian: “If there’s an Iranian master’s work (like Majidi’s), it will play in the (premier) competition section. That’s a given,” I was told by those in the know.

In fact, if Majidi stepped out to coffee-shops in Versova after shoot, a common question he’s likely to face is around the film viewing culture of Iran that spawns the kind of personal, expressive, yet subtle and subversive cinema. The world’s best filmmakers would wish for such a mainstream audience. Most Versova directors bemoan the commercial pressures of the Mumbai film industry they operate in. It’s in fact no different for Iran, as I discovered at a mainstream theatre in Teheran once — hoping to catch a Majidi/Makhmalbaf type of movie. People were laughing their heads off to a very David Dhawan kind of bawdy, slapstick comedy in there! Majidi smiles, “Well, that’s the trend everywhere. And there’s a certain group of people who enjoy (a different kind of) cinema.”

It’s hard to tell how much of our short conversation is getting lost in translation. Majidi’s films have hardly suffered as a result of that. At least one of them, Baran (2001), had had a theatrical release in Mumbai, and was widely loved.

He’s been living in this city for “four to five months now,” and what’s brought him here, he says is “the simultaneous beauty and suffering of India that grabbed my attention. Also, Iran and India, as societies, are so culturally close.” They’re, in fact, fairly close, cinema-wise as well. Hindi film, for instance, as the cliché goes, owes its origins to Parsee theatre. Parsees in turn owe their origins to Iran. Getting more factual still, few know that Ardeshir Irani, who made India’s first talkie (Alam Ara; 1931) is also credited with producing the first Persian talkie (Dokhtare Lor; 1932) — likewise a landmark moment in Iranian cinema.

Majidi is no stranger to Indian movies either. He says he’s closely followed works of, among others, Shyam Benegal, and Mira Nair. As with the Indian film he is shooting, A R Rahman had scored music for his last, Muhammad (2015), which was his way of “showing people the real side of Islam, which is nothing but a religion of peace, love, and friendship. Fanatics have nothing to do with Islam. They’re hell bent on portraying it in an ugly manner.” Fanatics from all ends, of course. Which doesn’t preclude the blanket ‘Muslim ban’ imposed by President Donald Trump in the US, the reason why Majidi’s contemporary Asghar Farhadi didn’t go to pick up his Academy Award last week: “I think Asghar’s reaction was fantastic, a matter of pride for all of us. It exceeds receiving the Oscar itself.”

In the current times then, does he see his role dually of an activist and an artiste? Isn’t it harder still to make political statements, given censorship imposed by the suppressive Islamist regime in his own country? Majidi doesn’t agree, “Governments come and go. People remain. Films, unlike newspapers, don’t get stale in a week. Cinema is made for generations. Take Children Of Heaven, for example, which deals with universal human emotions. Three generations are still watching it.” And will continue to, of course.

Sun’s down. It’s pack-up time in Versova for now. Looking ahead at his first Indian film, Majidi observes my hair, and says it resembles his lead actor’s: “Do you want to join us on our shoots?” he jokes. I knock one off my bucket list — being approached by Majidi to act in his movie. So what if it’s as a bloody body-double!