Before the Rains is an intriguing film, though I fear that it will be ignored by several different audiences, each of whom might enjoy it for different reasons. I enjoyed every frame of the film, but I’m biased. I’m a big fan of the colonial melodrama, of Santosh Sivan the director-cinematographer, of its two Indian stars and of Kerala – the most beautiful part of the world I’ve ever visited. The long shots of tea plantations, mountain sunsets and waterfalls in Before the Rains are almost worth the price of admission alone.
The story comes across as a recreation of a classic raj melodrama – one perhaps written by Somerset Maugham. I half expected Bette Davis to emerge from the planter’s house. Louis Bromfield’s book The Rains Came (1937) produced two films, one in 1939 (with Myrna Loy) and one in 1955 (with Elizabeth Taylor). ‘Before the Rains’ is a title which points to the signalling of the climax of the melodrama when the first drops of the monsoon rains fall – most memorably at the end of Black Narcissus (1947). Yet, these are all narratives constructed by American/European writers, produced by Hollywood or UK studios and focusing on a white woman. Before the Rains reverses the narrative focus – the passion comes from an Indian woman, its consequences fall on an Indian man and the director is working with the colonial history of his own state. But the final twist is that he has borrowed the whole narrative from a film about Jews and Bedouins in the Israeli desert (Yellow Asphalt: Three Desert Stories, Israel 2001). (It’s worth noting that there are Indian historical novels that deal with this period in South India, but they wouldn’t provide the British characters that this UK/US financed film requires.)
The story involves a British planter, Henry Moores (Linus Roache) who is having a passionate affair with his housemaid Sanjani (Nandita Das). His wife (played by Jennifer Ehle) and son are travelling back from the UK where the boy is at school. This is 1937 in the Munnar region of South India, part of the princely state of Travancore (Kerala was not actually created until 1956). The third major character is T.K. Neelan (Rahul Bose), one of the important characters in the raj melodrama – the Indian man, educated in an English language school and caught between his village and the planter he works for as foreman. The context is important, so all the action takes place in the midst of demonstrations by an increasingly vocal local independence movement.
Philip Kemp, who reviews the film in Sight and Sound (August 2008), usually does a very good job on Asian films, but in this case I think he reads it in a misleading way. He criticises the film for being too predictable or not believable in terms of the characters’ actions. But this isn’t a ‘realist drama’. The characters all play symbolic roles. It’s a melodrama – one in which the ‘excess’ is there in the beauty and the expressionist nature of the cinematography and the acting. Yes, the script is a bit of a mess, but the execution of the melodrama is flawless and the issues surrounding the symbolic nature of the characters leads the attentive viewer into quite complex debates about the historical events and what is being represented. The opening titles present the dreaded words “Merchant Ivory presents”, but this isn’t a conventional adaptation of a literary novel – it’s much more interesting (and to be fair to James Ivory, his Indian-based films with Ismail Merchant were, in my view, superior to the later, more famous productions). I for one didn’t find Before the Rains predictable, perhaps because I refuse to play the game of trying to guess what happens next. As a result, I was on the edge of my seat for the last few minutes.
The metaphorical basis of the story derives from the other main plot element. Moores decides to build a road through the hills to enable him to plant spices (cardamom, cloves, peppers) and to ship them out more efficiently. For this he needs T.K. to find the ‘right road’ that will survive the rains and to organise the local labour – and he needs the local British banker to fund the operation. As some perceptive commentators have pointed out, the road is a metaphor for India, both up to independence and after 1947. T.K. also needs to find the right road for himself to travel. Moores and the bank risk investment at a time when the future of the raj is in doubt. Moores himself risks all because of his relationship with Sanjani. What she (as a married woman in the village) has to gain or lose is just as important. Unlike the British woman, she has few options – a metaphor for women in India both in the independence struggle and ever since?
A further level of meaning can be drawn from the film in relation to ideas about Indian cinema. Santosh Sivan is from a family of South Indian filmmakers. A graduate of the Indian national film school in Pune, he has worked in two of India’s main commercial cinemas in Chennai and Mumbai as both cinematographer and director. He has also made his own low budget film in Tamil (see the post on The Terrorist) – a film which might be considered as part of ‘parallel cinema’. Before the Rains is a hybrid of different modes of Indian cinema and the Merchant Ivory mode of ‘quality cinema’. It sounds impossible, but it works. There are moments when Sivan goes for big close-ups which recall The Terrorist, but there are also nicely staged crowd scenes which reminded me of moments in Bhowani Junction, the 1956 Hollywood-British raj melodrama, which has a similar story in several ways. There is a tension in the film whenever it feels like Sivan will move into ‘Bollywood mode’ – but he never does. (I think it was probably a wise move not to select CinemaScope for this film – which would have set up the possibility of both Hollywood and Bollywood in terms of ‘epic scale’.)
The most notable aspect of melodrama excess comes in some of the playing. I want to watch it a second time to be sure, but I remember some eye-rolling, I think from Nandita Das and Jennifer Ehle (as Mrs Moores), that would have been out of place in another film but here worked well. I should also mention the drums – I couldn’t help but think about the importance of both music and sound effects in Black Narcissus and they are equally important here. In fact there were several scenes that reminded me of the Michael Powell film. I wonder if, as a film student, Sivan has seen the Powell film? Where Before the Rains scores of course is that instead of a Surrey country park and a studio interior with an assorted cast from London’s East End, Sivan could shoot on authentic locations with appropriate casting. Perhaps the only point where casting and performance raised questions was Rahul Bose’s portrayal of the film’s most conflicted character, T.K. Neelan. I admired Bose greatly for his performance in Mr & Mrs Iyer in which he played a Bengal wild life photographer – a serious and responsible man. In Before the Rains, he looks different to the other men in his village. Unlike Nandita Das who appears to be able to play a woman from any part of India, Bose is less chameleon-like for me. More of a problem, however, is the English accent (perfectly fine in Mr & Mrs Iyer). Here he must be subservient, almost obsequious, referring to Moores as ‘Sahib’. I’m sure that the mode of speaking is ‘realistic’ for the time and place, but it makes this viewer uncomfortable. Interestingly, Bose himself seems conscious of his own typecasting as the ‘poster boy’ (he’s 41) of Indian alternative cinema, the ‘Sean Penn of India’ and I’m going to try to watch some of his mainstream comedies. (I’m also intrigued by his pairing here with Nandita Das as the two seem to share the same kind of profile as social activists and ‘alternative cinema’ stars.)
Overall, I’d recommend anyone interested in Indian cinema to watch this film and to enjoy working through its complexities – as well as enjoying Kerala on screen.