The star-crossed lovers of Indian cinema may declare that their romance is divine, but it isn’t every day that they actually become the playthings of gods. Seeing the world through each other’s eyes, whispering tender secrets in each other’s ears, retaining one another’s memory, expressing emotion in lofty proclamations — Rahat Mahajan’s debut feature Meghdoot (“The Cloud Messenger”), in competition at the recently concluded IFFR, takes these ideals of Hindi movie love at face value and gives them a weight by encoding them in Indian mythology.

The year is 1995 and the setting is a mixed-gender boarding school nestled in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Quiet yet mischievous, Jaivardhan (Ritvik Tyagi) is instantly smitten by new student Tarini (Ahalya Shetty), victim of visions. This adolescent romance is, however, framed by a faux-Orphean legend where yaksha lovers Jaivardhana and Tarini are separated by the jealous, ten-headed king Dashanana — this story told intermittently in a mixed style that draws elements from traditional dance forms of Kerala. As the film progresses, the two strands cross paths, interpenetrate each other to a point that it is not possible to tell the text from subtext anymore.

Life at the convent is presented mostly through caricatured professors seemingly out of Another Brick in the Wall, but these jarring bits soon recede into the background, for Mahajan’s film isn’t all that interested in the banalities of campus life. It is a work at once rooted in a specific milieu and slightly unmoored from it. If it uses the rectilinearity of the school’s colonial architecture to stately effect, its tracking shots and shallow-focus cinematography detach the protagonists from these environs, which become increasingly alien to them.

Meghdoot is not Rockford. While it is patently a coming-of-age tale, the film doesn’t refract this experience through the prism of male sexuality or view it with nostalgic indulgence. None of Jaivardhan or Tarika’s peers are individualized, which means that we are spared a lot of colourful frat talk. The film’s strength instead lies in identifying completely with its young leads, who experience their union literally as a matter of life and death.

The mythical narrative, for its part, is impressively produced, with the performers arranged in precise tableaux vivants in a muralled palace and the story recounted by a Kudiyattam narrator in magnificent Carnatic vocals. However, I found the whole idea chafing in the way it uses Kudiyattam/Theyyam primarily for its spectacular potential rather than for what it is as a form. Now, I know next to nothing about Kudiyattam/Theyyam and I am not a purist; an artist has all the right to pick and choose elements from one form to adapt it to another. But in their use of sound elements external to these forms — hums, dramatic strings — and their repetitive if immersive forward tracking shots, these passages register too much as a forceful upsell of Indian mythology, closer to the assured commodification of music videos than the tentative heterogeneity of artistic experiments. (Mahajan reportedly has a background in visual marketing of Bollywood productions.)

But my bigger reservation was with the film’s construction. Evidently, Meghdoot seeks to provide thematic heft to its central love story by framing it through legend. But the parallels are so closely established, all the symbols so clearly mapped out, that the narrative becomes overdetermined by the myth. Watching the film, I was reminded of Christian Petzold’s Undine (2020), another water-obsessed work that employs an enveloping fable to impart mystery to the clinical relations of a present-day love story.

Mystery, though, is regrettably absent in Meghdoot, where everything is rationalized to a point that the viewer is left with a gradually self-solving puzzle. Instead of the myth infusing everyday life with a sense of the eternal and the inexplicable, the uncanny is made familiar by the literal-minded intercutting. Late into the film, Jaivardhan stares at a photograph made by Tarini. The film ensures that it cuts to the reverse angle and shows what exactly is present in the photo. This kind of instant gratification, I’m afraid, permeates the film, where the viewer is rewarded for practically no work.

It is undeniable that the multi-hyphenate Mahajan thinks cinematically. The assured repetition of compositions and sounds—canteen, dorm, bathroom, stairs, swimming pool, trumpet calls, electrical arcs—the division of dialogue across spaces with actors striking poses as they declaim impossible lines of dialogue, the leisurely pace despite the brisk editing pattern, the composition of points-of-view shots and the sporadic attention to telling documentary detail all point to a filmmaker with a native literacy in the medium.

Meghdoot also reveals an excellent direction of inexperienced actors in demanding roles. Ritvik Tyagi hurtles through the frame in a very physical performance, his rookie earnestness completely convincing. In contrast to her mythical counterpart, Ahalya Shetty’s droopy-eyed Tarini is taller than her partner, a piquant difference that is emphasized in the many mid-shots they stand together in. Her stature and broad shoulders also make it easier to spot her in a group shot, of which there are numerous in the film. The only misstep may be the role of Mr. Sapru (Raj Zutshi), a visiting photography teacher, whose serious tone and deliberate, self-important diction are exacerbated by a slew of didactic, overexplanatory lines.

But these fine qualities make me wish that the film didn’t have to play as safe as it does, to be so ready to please. For a story about the hereafter and the beyond, Meghdoot is unfortunately too much of this world.

[Edit: I learn now that the traditional dance form is in fact Kudiyattam (and not Theyyam, as previously mentioned in the review), with the film borrowing elements of Theyyam for some of the figures. I’ve corrected this in the text.]