The Cloud Messenger (2022) Movie Review: Kalidasa, often considered one of the greatest Indian poets and renowned for being the greatest of Sanskrit, wrote one of his masterpieces in the form of the 120-stanza lyric poem, ‘Meghadoot’. In what can be simplified as the lamentation of a Yaksha (celestial being) who has been tragically separated from his female companion and sends a cloud as a messenger to where she is, the poem is clouded with a distinctive atmosphere wrapped around it, its love and tragedy alive in its classical elements. One can say that Rahat Mahajan’s ‘The Cloud Messenger’ is both about the poem and not really about it.
Whatever you may make out of that sentence, the elements are, anyway, all there. The play imagines the Yaksha couple, Jaivardhana and Tarini, as re-incarnated modern-day English-speaking teenagers who are studying in a boarding school called St. Wilson on the foothills of the Himalayas, facing individual struggles with their physical trainers and finding some amount of comfort in the photography sessions they attend under ex-teacher Mr. Sapru. However, the thickly forested grounds harbor their own secrets, and the reunion of this life sprouts the seeds of the mythical previous one.
The film alternates between the depictions of an idyllic and simple high-school teenage drama and the vivacious re-imagination of Sanskrit mythology. The gradually developing warmth amid the coldness of the settings get replaced by the cold-blooded fate of the lovers in the warm-tinted romantic myth, and vice-versa. Another crucial difference is the carefully staged and deliberately distant drama of the modern day (with as minimal references to the modern day as possible) contrasted with the dynamically theatrical tale from thousands of years ago, involving classical Thayyam and Kathakali dancers telling the story and even playing crucial supporting and antagonistic roles in it.
The film might often remind you of Rishab Shetty’s ‘Kantara’ (which also hosted for a majority of its running time, the folk performances of Bhoota Kola, which is a variant of Thayyam transposed to Karnataka), in that both of the films find a richly mythical past influencing the tight-knit and gritty events of the present. However, both films tie up in one more aspect – how frustratingly overlong they are.
For an indie, Mahajan’s debut feature has an unreasonable running time. Since the selling points of his execution arrive early on in the film and wrap around in a solid third act, the length of 2 hours and 21 minutes is not something it earns. The first half mixes world-building, myth-making and dramatic storytelling quite convincingly, but the same cannot be said about the second half, which just stretches to eternity unless a really compelling visual moment comes around and holds your breath.
Also, somehow, the modern-day parts are consistently more difficult to navigate than the solid retellings of romantic mythology. The stunning landscapes of Himachal are a great playing ground for a thick coating of mystery to feel believable and be aesthetically appealing, but the performances are shoddy. Ritvik Tyagi and Ahalya Shetty have great chemistry together and are physically committed to their performances, but the acting feels cold and pale more often than not. Raj Zutshi’s typical supporting aid of a character quotes lines taken from several social media posts and delivers dialogues just for their sake. Bikramjeet Kanwarpal, otherwise sincere, is cartoonish here as the P.T. coach Mr. Das.
Most of these contrivances, however, are made up for by the excellent use of fantasy. In fact, the frothy mix of a torn romance and a worn-out mythical tale brought to life works because Mahajan treats it like the genre currency of a fantasy – the alluring kind, the kind which is usually not to be seen in the Indian cinema of today. The bold choice to bring Sanskrit verses into the forefront like echoes of a lost opera, and blending them with English dialogue of the kind, which is entirely original to the young and thinking India of today pays off. The cinematography by Rahat Mahajan and Anil Pingua is some of the best seen in Indian cinema lately, alternating between color palettes and effortlessly shooting constructs of nature and medieval humanity.
In fact, ‘The Cloud Messenger’ also diligently establishes itself as an imperative work of art in spite of its flaws. At a time when the ruling regime is resorting to ancient texts in order to reform the part of society which refuses to conform to them, it plucks one of them and revises it to make palpable fiction that is not really designed to rule out the possibility of criticism and analysis. In fact, the story is principally built on its constructs, precisely what makes it human despite being so otherworldly. This is one ‘Hindu’ film that does not weaponize extremes. In fact, it has only a story to offer, intrusive thoughts or similar implications are out of the question.