Reimagining Kalidasa’s eponymous Sanskrit poem, The Cloud Messenger (Meghdoot) (2022) tells the tale of cursed celestial lovers who, after centuries of longing, meet as teenagers in a colonial-era boarding school. The film, Rahat Mahajan’s debut feature, narrates the fictitious story of Jaivardhana (Rahat Mahajan/Ritvik Tyagi) and Tarini (Lalita Shivani/Ahalya Shetty), attracting much-deserved attention as the only Indian film in competition for the Tiger Award at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam.
While Kalidasa’s poem describes how a yaksha (celestial spirit), banished by his master to a remote region for a year, convinces a passing cloud to carry a message of love to his wife, the film engages mythical figures to fluidly traverse multiverses by abandoning perceived spatiotemporal structures. Mahajan incorporates the ancient South Indian storytelling forms of Kutiyattam, Kathakali, and Theyyam in the narrative, which rely on facial expressions and gestures to invoke epic characters from Hindu mythology. For instance, the antagonist King Dashananan (Rajeevan Peesapali) who covets Tarini communicates through Kathakali, and the character performing Theyyam (K.N. Lakshmanan) invokes the spirit of Tarini from the netherworld.
By juxtaposing highly trained performing artists of the Indian aesthetic traditions with school children (mostly non-actors), the film achieves a unique melange of restraint and spontaneity. Mahajan’s alma mater, The Lawrence School, Sanawar, forms the boarding school backdrop, which, with its location in the misty Himalayan mountains, accentuates the supernatural occurrences depicted in the film. The Cloud Messenger relies heavily on aesthetics to hook the viewers and draw them into its magical world imbued with a dark and transient visual tone. The exquisite grand costumes of the mythical characters, their multilayered colorful makeup, and enchanting facial expressions are spotlighted by close-ups, slow tracking shots, and fragmentary compositions.
The film’s overarching theme finds resonance in most scriptures and religions of the world, which advocate suffering as a means to liberation. This notion is propagated in the excruciating punishment that Jaivardhana endures daily at school and the ordeal of Tarini, which become catalysts for the “ultimate test,” as the entire universe aids in breaking the ancient curse and setting the two lovers free in the contemporary mortal world. Through the coming-of-age story of the protagonists, Mahajan’s film exhibits the power of true love in transcending space and time.
The Cloud Messenger is screening online in the UK as part of the BFI film Festival through October 23.