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‘Meghdhoot’, directed by Rahat Mahajan, blends traditional performative art forms with cinema to narrate a timeless love story

Updated - November 08, 2022 05:04 pm IST

Published - November 08, 2022 04:03 pm IST

Rahat Mahajan’s Meghdhoot, doing the festival rounds, is a marvellous fusion of fantasy, myth and magical realism in a contemporary setting

Koodiyattam exponent Kapila Venu as the narrator in Meghdhoot, directed by Rahat Mahajan. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In the cloistered environment of a boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas, a timeless drama of love plays out, creating visual poetry on screen. The past coalesces into the present seamlessly in filmmaker Rahat Mahajan’s debut feature film Meghdhoot. Performative arts such as Koodiyattam, Kathakali and Theyyam, classical and ritualistic story-telling art forms of Kerala, are woven skilfully into the cinematic narrative to bring alive the immortal story of Jaivardhan and Tharini.

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Inspired by Kalidasa’s fifth century epic Sanskrit poem Meghdhootham, Rahat has made a film that bridges eras, places, and cultures into a story of eternal love, reincarnation and redemption. An ancient myth that begins when a Yaksha and a Yakshi fall in love finds realisation in the present through the romance between two students in the boarding school.

A still from the film Meghdhoot, directed by Rahat Mahajan. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Says Rahat: “I have taken the premise of the cloud becoming a messenger between two people from Meghdhootham and crafted a story around that. In the epic poem, the Yaksha is banished to Arunachala, which seems to be in the South while their home Alaka seems to be somewhere in the Himalayas.”

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Although Meghdhootham does not delve into why the Yaksha was banished, Rahat has used his creative license to bring a story of lust and longing that results in the banishment of Jaivardhan.

Film director Rahat Mahajan as Jaivardhan in a still from Meghdhoot. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The story of the Yaksha and the Yakshi has been transposed to the present, in the pre-mobile phone era through the romance between the students Jaivardhan and Tharini. Although Rahat began writing the story in 2010, he took time to begin shooting because he was clear that he wanted his work to be a showcase of Indian aesthetics for a global audience.

Initially, Rahat’s idea was to seek the help of a traditional performer to act as the sootradhar of the story and introduce the various segments to the viewer. However, his meeting with seasoned Koodiyattam exponent Kapila Venu had him rewriting the story of the film.

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Theyyam performer Kundilarambath Lakshmanan essays the story of Tharini from another era in Rahat Mahajan’s Meghdhoot | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Rahat believes that serendipity brought Kapila to the project. Till a relative of his mentioned Kapila’s name, he had not even heard of the ancient theatre art form of Koodiyattam. From thereon it was Kapila, credited as director of traditional theatre forms, who helped him find the right forms, performers and music to breathe life into his characters from a mystical past. Dashananan (Ravanan) and Hanuman have been performed on screen by Kathakali veteran Peesappilly Rajeevan and Sadanam Bhasi respectively. Kundilarambath Lakshmanan is the Theyyam performer who appears as the ancient Tharini. Kapila’s eloquent gestures, expressions and eyes narrate the story in the Koodiyattam form.

Kapila says that as soon as she read the script, she knew that it had to be Rajeevan to enact Dashananan (Ravanan), the thorn in the romance between Jaivardhan and Tharini. She had the lyrics translated into Malayalam and Sanskrit and set to music.

Ritvik Tyagi as Jaivardhan and Ahalya Shetty as Tharini in Rahat Mahajan’s Meghdhoot.  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For enacting the present-day characters, auditions were held. The audition for the casting brought in new faces that Rahat wanted. When he felt that the actor cast in the role of the mythical Jaivardhan did not seem organic, he himself stepped in as the ancient version of the character, dreadlocks and all. Living up to the spectacular performances of the practitioners of traditional art forms are Ritvik Tyagi, who aces it as the confused adolescent present-day Jaivardhan who feels a strange pull when he sees Tharini, enacted by Ahalya Shetty. However, Tharani, troubled by visions and depressed, sees Dashananan at the most unexpected places, as Dashananan continues his pursuit of Tharini.

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Rarely has a modern film come up with such a nuanced blending of Indian art forms and aesthetics to tell a contemporary story. “The idea was to make a contemporary Indian mythology via organically, merging the oldest forms of storytelling with the newest one, that is cinema, and finding a new form of storytelling that is very much Indian, yet also universal,” states Rahat. 

In 2016, Rahat came down from the US to shoot the Kumbh Mela at Ujjain. “That’s when my dreadlocks helped. I tied it up and went minimal clothing for a dip in the Shipra like the other sadhus. That helped me get some excellent shots of the Mela. I have devoted 12 years for this one film,” he says.

Rahat Mahajan | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Going beyond a superficial merging of different story-telling medium, Rahat has also tried to bring the Mukharagas (expressions) from the Natyashastra with the corresponding rasas (emotion). “I have also paid homage to Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara by creating a storyline that incorporates all the seasons.”

Premiered at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam’s Tiger Competition section in January 2022, it has been travelling the festival circuit since then and has been screened at the London Film Festival. Meghdhoot will be screened in the Asian Feature Film competition section of the 33rd Singapore International Film Festival that is from November 24 to December 4.

In the meantime, Rahat is planning his next film, “more than a biopic on scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose”. The shoot is being planned in Kolkata in India and the UK. “I hope to make that soon and not wait for 12 years to make the film. It is also about science and nature, science and spirituality, all relevant themes.”

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