IFFR 2022 review: The Cloud Messenger (Rahat Mahajan)

“Exquisitely shot and disarmingly acted, but overlong and unbalanced in its narrative, The Cloud Messenger showcases Mahajan’s talent as a director yet also lays bare the flaws in his writing.”

To fully appreciate Rahat Mahajan’s debut The Cloud Messenger one needs to brush up on the Ramayana, one of the oldest epic poems ever written, since the film’s storyline gradually becomes a loose retelling of one of the main stories in that work. Exquisitely shot and disarmingly acted, but overlong and unbalanced in its narrative, The Cloud Messenger showcases Mahajan’s talent as a director yet also lays bare the flaws in his writing. From this epic love story set in India’s Himalayan foothills, what lingers is the beautiful way Mahajan weaves together the main story and the tale it is inspired by, with its visual depiction of the Hindu deities populating it.

Jaivardhan (Ritvik Tyagi) feels out of place at Mt. Wilson, a prestige boarding school in the misty hills of the Himalayas. Roll calls and discipline are not his forte and his teachers seem to have it in for him, or at least it feels like that to Jaivardhan. But when a new girl enters the school the clouds are lifted a bit. A former teacher (Raj Zutshi) gives a photography workshop at the school, an opportunity for Jaivardhan to get closer to Tarini (Ahalya Shetty). After a rough start a tentative love develops between the two. Tarini tells Jaivardhan about her fears of the deep end during her swimming lessons. She sees a demonic figure at the end of the pool who tries to lure her, making her freeze up and fail to reach her goal of qualifying for the school team. Jaivardhan teaches her the tricks he uses when trying to complete his own physical challenge, but when Tarini is finally ready to overcome her fears, disaster strikes.

It is at this point that the tale of the two lovers more closely starts to follow the Ramayana, specifically the kidnapping of Sita (wife of Rama, the epic’s main subject) by Ravana and the attempt by Hanuman, the monkey god, to free her. The opening of this classic story was already shown at the beginning of the film, and it is Ravana (though one of his other names, Dashanan, is used here) who haunts Tarini during her swimming lessons. Jaivardhan, after consulting with his photography teacher, climbs Hanuman’s mountain to seek out his help. The way certain key elements of the epic story are worked into the screenplay is really deft, and the makeup and costume design shine in this section of the film. In general the technical aspects of The Cloud Messenger are excellent, in particular the cinematography by Anil Pingua and Mahajan himself, who render the cool and misty climate with a softness and slight DoF to create atmosphere, then contrast it with the scenes where Ravana and later Hanuman come in.

Unfortunately, this melding of real and cosmic storylines and the combination of ancient and contemporary storytelling comes late in the 2.5-hour runtime, especially because the classic tale is already introduced in the opening. A lot of time is spent on Jaivardhan and Tarini’s courtship, and while both actors give excellent performances throughout, this means the film is without major conflict for most of the story. A more succinct version of the first two acts would have made The Cloud Messenger a less daunting watch. The final act makes it rewarding, but it might be too little too late for some audiences with less patience.