Before the Rains
Verdant Visuals, Parched Narrative

Santosh Sivan does a phenomenal job of proving his love for southern India with the direction and cinematography of Before the Rains… so it is truly a travesty that the screenplay doesn’t deliver the same passion. Regardless of the flatlining story, however, I recommend this movie just for the experience of enjoying the scenic grandeur of the land and the beauty of the tribal people—a travelogue with a simple storyline.

The time is 1937 and the place is southern India, where English colonialism is beginning to experience the pressure that will lead to the eventual self-determination following the demise of the Raj form of government. Henry Moores (played by Linus Roache, who will be familiar to Law and Order fans) is an Englishman who is coming late to the table but confident that he can build a fortune by carving a road far into the hills in order to harvest and export spices. His primary colleague is an Indian of local tribal descent named T. K. Neelan, whose world has been broadened by an education in England and who is naïve enough to believe that an English spice baron would consider him an equal and a friend regardless of circumstances.

Santosh Sivan, director of Before the RainsEnter the deal-breaking circumstance—the gorgeous Sajani, who works as housekeeper for Moores and through mutual attraction (and the absence of Mrs. Moores) has become Henry’s lover. T. K. suspects something might be going on, but keeps his place and his peace even when Henry exercises what he feels is his God-given right to protect his family’s reputation at all costs. The ending is not happyand rather than spoil the movie, this is where the synopsis ends.

At the heart of Before the Rains is the conflict created when one is found trying to live outside the caste (pre-determined level of society) into which one is born. The screenwriters do an adequate job of portraying the position of women in Indian tribal culture. Sajani’s is a loveless and often brutal arranged marriage and she risks her very life to find happiness with Henry. By blindly believing that he will leave his wife and take her away where they can be together, she risks not only being an out-caste (thinking that she can rise out of her birth place) but also an outcast—shunned for her behavior and foreign to her own people forever.

The writer really stumbles, however, trying to create characters that draw the viewer into their world and their emotions. As Sajani, Nandita Das comes across with a great degree of passion. Unfortunately, the other characters are so formulaic and predictable that once Sajani is out of the picture, the story just collapses into dullness and all there is to enjoy is the scenery. Sivan’s attempts to keep the story alive are distressingly tangible as he tries facial close-ups, character juxtapositions, and multiple camera angles to try to bring life to something that simply fades into the background.

Worse, Sivan works in scenes of civil unrest and politicizing that are, yes, very Ghandi-esque. But the political story is completely buried in dialogue between characters, and the civil disobedience feels like a redundant afterthought.

The technical merits of the film are what make it worth seeing. Sivan’s camera sweeps over the hillsides covered in tea plantations and shrouded in mist, presenting a poetic and passionate natural background that overwhelms the storyline. Sivan’s use of water in multiple metaphors is magical and calming, and the brief glimpses into tribal life and practices are wonderfully woven into the story. Sivan definitely has an eye for framing the picture and he is assuredly on my list to watch for when he starts working with better scripts.

Before the Rains is rated PG-13 for “violent content and a scene of sexuality.” The violence is not even close to what most children have seen in cartoons, and there is no nudity or fondling of body parts ever on camera. This does not mean I think children should see the film. For one thing, they would be completely bored to death because the themes are only for adults, and kids tend not to be impressed by scenery. If you have a large enough television, wait for the DVD and pop it in after the kids are in bed. If you have a small television, get a sitter and see Before the Rains on the big screen just for the grandeur of the setting.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Kathy viewed a promotional screener of Before the Rains.