India’s Zee Flies ‘Beyond the Clouds’ With Iran’s Majid Majidi (EXCLUSIVE)

JAIPUR – Sambhar, a village in Rajasthan, located some 200 miles from New Delhi, is adjacent to India’s largest saline lake and produces some 10% of the country’s salt. It has some glamorous antecedents too having hosted prominent Bollywood productions like “Jodhaa Akbar,” “Delhi-6,” “P.K.,” and “Highway.”

For much of March 2017, Sambhar witnessed a film shoot rather different from Bollywood. Iranian auteur Majid Majidi, director of award-winning films such as “Children of Heaven,” “Baran,” and “Muhammad: The Messenger of God,” chose a house in the village to stand in for a residence in Mumbai, where his latest film “Beyond the Clouds” is set.

Majidi had been planning to make an India-set film some eight years ago. “There are many similarities between Iran and India in culture, language and clothes,” says Majidi. “Sometimes we even use the same words and slang as well.”

The director’s quest to make a film in India led him to Mumbai-based production house Eye Candy Films (“The Legend of Michael Mishra”) and plans were announced for “Floating Gardens,” a film with the same genre and aesthetic of “Children of Heaven” and “Baran,” according to Majidi. “Floating Gardens” was set aside temporarily to focus on “Clouds,” a Hindi-, English- and Tamil-language coming of age story about a brother-sister relationship, described by Majidi as “a social subject like my other films, but in different layers, where we pay attention to poor people who suffer from social problems, who do not have the chance to express themselves.”

“Clouds” will be Indian media conglomerate Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited’s first international production via its Zee Studios outfit. Shareen Mantri and Kishor Arora produce for Eye Candy, and Reza Tashakkori serves as executive producer. Zee Studios has produced a number of Indian films, including 2016 blockbusters “Sairat” and “Rustom”.

While Zee Studios and Eye Candy declined to reveal the budget of the film, Variety has learnt from reliable industry sources that the figure is around $12 million.

Initial Bollywood names being considered for the female lead included Deepika Padukone and Kangana Ranaut (“Queen”.) In the end, after a lengthy audition process, Majidi cast Malavika Mohanan, so far known for Malayalam-language films “Pattam Pole” and “Nirnnayakam,” with debutant Ishaan Khattar as the male lead.

“Unlike Bollywood films that are done mostly on sets, 90% of this film is shot on realistic locations,” says Majidi. He could not find a location that matched his vision in Mumbai, but found the perfect match in Sambhar.

Majidi is working with an entirely Indian crew on the film. Having previously employed legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro on “Muhammad,” Majidi chose Anil Mehta (Oscar-nominated “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India”.) “I wanted to use someone who knows the light, the color and the rich culture of India. It was very important to have a local crew,” said Majidi. The filmmaker also renewed his “Muhammad” relationship with double Oscar-winning Indian music composer A.R. Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire”.)

ZSI and Eye Candy will show footage to international buyers at the Cannes film market in May and the companies are already in negotiations with some U.S. studios for North American rights, says Vibha Chopra, head of distribution & marketing, Zee Studios International, the Zee division that focuses on acquisition and distribution of films for the international market. The plan is to premiere the completed film at A-list festivals later in the year before an international commercial rollout.

After wrapping “Clouds,” Majidi will revive “Floating Gardens” and another currently untitled India-set drama, this time revolving around the difficult lives of children who work in coal mines.

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