Before the Rains
Starring Linus Roache, Rahul Bose, Nadita Das
Directed by Santosh Sivan
In Santosh Sivan's Before the Rains, British planter Henry Moores (Linus Roache) is introduced smacking his lips over a bounty of cinnamon and tea in 1937 Kerala, India. Accompanied by his faithful, obsequious manservant T.K. (Rahul Bose), Moores schemes to cut a spice road through the thus far unexploited jungle.
But the lands belong to his lovely housemaid Sajani (Nadita Das). In the kind of painful symbolism that circles the film's neck like a concrete noose, Moores and Sajani sneak away to the local "forbidden place" for their lovemaking. Any slasher movie fan knows that sex in taboo locales will not go unpunished. When someone later mentions the coming monsoon season, it doesn't take a licensed meteorologist to predict that this forbidden romance will result in an emotional catastrophe.
Sajani is trapped in an arranged marriage to the village ogre, a man so foul he makes Moores' silk ascot and blank expression almost enticing. The illicit love affair thus threatens the centuries-old social mores of the village. Add brewing anti-Brit sentiment in the village and the chances are high for a potential derailing of Moores' plot to carve a road through the land. And did we mention the monsoons are coming?
Indian director Sivan's Before the Rains feels less like the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray than a Lifetime movie which uses Sajani and Moores' ill-fated love affair as a metaphor for the travesty of colonialism. Prepare to be schooled.
But for a film whose central metaphor is sexual, Before the Rains is an immediate disappointment. Close-ups of Moores' insistent nose nuzzling Sajani's flesh don't exactly telegraph passion, while the chemistry between actors Roache and Das provides the film with little more than a spark, when a sizzle was needed to sell the idea of a passionate affair with global implications.
As if Moores was not a charisma-sucking chest wound enough, the arrival of his prissy wife (Jennifer Ehle) carting a symbolic bathtub into the backwoods and a young son interrogating the locals on their spiritual beliefs ups the annoying-Brits quotient. It's not colonialism that rankles so much in Before the Rains as the stereotypical white linen tendencies of these central casting Brits with their infernal cricket games and sexual repression.
In his English-language debut Sivan (The Terrorist) feels compelled to underscore every incident with an absurd degree of melodrama. Foreshadowing in Before the Rains is wielded with all the finesse of a machete, like the British pistol Moores gives to the devoted T.K. at the beginning of the drama; you know that the firearm will make an inevitable reappearance.
Before the Rains' take on human behavior is comparably simplistic, with the Brits behaving badly and the Indians weak-willed and inert. T.K. has the passivity and innocence of a small child, and it is through his eyes that the events of the film are observed. But rather than feeling as though we're seeing this unfolding drama for the first time, the story feels as old as the hills.
Will the rains come? Aye, they will. And so too the colonialist's comeuppance, though by the time it rolls around many will be past caring.