A quiet ache pierces through Santosh Sivan’s beautifully wrought colonial drama Before the Rains. Even before the story unfolds, you are filled with foreboding. The film is set in Kerala and every lush green frame, lovingly shot by Sivan, is tinged with melancholy.
It’s 1937. India is waking up to the call of independence. In the simmering discontent, two worlds collide. Tragedy is inevitable. Moores, a haughty British planter played by Linus Roache, embarks on a passionate affair with his maid, Sajani, played by Nandita Das. When the affair is discovered, Moores’ enlists his loyal caretaker, T.K. played by Rahul Bose, to help him. Despite the evidence around him, T. K. thinks of the British and especially Moore as benign rulers. When his former teacher speaks to him about getting rid of the British, T.K. asks, ‘And why should we be rid of them sir. With mutual co-operation comes mutual prosperity.’ But the illicit love affair and its disastrous consequences force him to confront reality and make difficult moral choices.
Before the Rains is based on an Israeli short film called Red Roofs but little has been lost in translation. Sivan’s film is rich and layered like a miniature painting. Each character is nuanced and full-bodied. So there are no obvious villains here. Even Moores, first charming, then ruthless and finally defeated, evokes sympathy. The acting is first rate. Happily Rahul Bose sheds his Rahul Boseness — you know the uptight, clipped accent performance he’s done in a dozen movies—and becomes the conflicted, naïve T.K. Nandita Das is wonderful — there is a heart-breaking scene in which she asks Moores if he loves her and he pauses and says no. Roache is also very good as the planter who believes that he is the master of the universe but is eventually overrun by his own mistakes and the forces of history.
Through the film, Sivan contrasts human folly and arrogance with the pristine beauty of the land. Moores and T.K are building a road up the mountain. They ascend triumphantly with laborers hacking down trees but this violation of nature ultimately leads to their downfall.
In places, Before the Rains has an element of the over-exotic. I found T.K.’s trial by fire especially unconvincing. At times, it also feels too pretty to be effective. But remember that this is a Merchant-Ivory presentation. The delicate art direction camouflages real insights and emotion.
Before the Rains has grace and power. I recommend that you see it.