Abhinandan Banerjee’s debut feature, The Cloud & the Man (titled Manikbabur Megh in Bengali), has an unusual premise: a middle-aged loner’s unique and meaningful relationship with a cloud. The artful and contemplative film delves into loneliness, loss, love, hope, betrayal, and ephemerality with ethereal grace. It opens with a quote from Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote that sets the tone for the idiosyncratic story that unfolds: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?”
Manik (Chandan Sen) lives with his bedridden father (Nemai Ghosh). His humdrum existence revolves around watering plants on the rooftop, observing a lizard and spider at home, going to the office, tutoring a child in the evening, feeding stray dogs, and preparing meals for himself and his father. This quotidian cyclic rhythm is rendered in monochrome by cinematographer Anup Singh, complementing the lack of color and vitality in Manik’s life. As tragedy befalls him, Manik finds solace in a lone cloud amid the scorching heat of Kolkata. Initially mistaking it for a stalker, he soon forms a surreal romantic bond with the cloud that injects zest into his life and makes him embrace the world with warmth.
Banerjee compensates for the minimal dialogue with snapshots of the old-world Bengali milieu. The Kolkata that Manik navigates is reflected in tattered buildings with spiral staircases, loud and argumentative neighbors, fish markets, local tea shops, trams, rickshaw pullers, transistor radios, posters of gods, and hoodwinking brokers. Abol Tabol, the nonsense rhymes of Sukumar Ray (filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s father) — hugely popular among children in Bengal — touches upon the inexplicable magic and poetry of a cloudy night, hinting at a fleeting connection to the narrative. Subhajit Mukherjee’s musical score carries the screenplay’s varying moods: melancholic violins effectively capture Manik’s dreary routine, while ominous percussion makes tense situations feel palpable, and the soulful orchestra lends immense beauty to tender and romantic moments. The diegetic sounds of the bustling metropolis, plying trains, and traditional Bengali songs are conspicuous features in the film and prevent silence from engulfing most frames.
Sen plays the understated character of Manik with great emotional restraint, communicating his inner world primarily through visual cues. For instance, a billboard advertising marriage alludes to his sense of loss and loneliness. Likewise, when he tries to avoid the stalking cloud, a bit of dark humor finds its way in through a skyscraper billboard that reads “Live with the Clouds.” But the heart of The Cloud & the Man beats the loudest in the silent moments as Manik’s love story with the cloud blossoms. His playfulness while trying to penetrate the cloud with a kite, and the sensuous pouring of water from the cloud, collected in a bucket, onto his body are some of the most romantic yet subtle expressions of love I’ve witnessed on screen in recent memory. The film’s magical realism and ambiguous ending are open to interpretation, but one thing that cannot be refuted is the power of love in adding a tinge of color to an overlooked, black and white life.
The Cloud & the Man screens at the Crandell Theatre (48 Main Street, Chatham, New York) as part of the FilmColumbia Festival on October 27.
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