An Indian Man Has His Allegiances Tested In This Plush Histrocal Melodrama
Director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant founded their Merchant-Ivory production company in 1961 to make English-language movies set in India, but what this imprint has forged over the course of their more than 50 movies in more than 40 years is a very specific tone and mood. Whether it be 1983's India-set Heat and Dust or 1985's Tuscan romance A Room With a View, these movies typically involve early-20th-century British men and women in some foreign country or soon-to-be former British colony, out of their ken but discovering themselves. While the movies don't hew strictly to the pre-World War II Westerners in transition, the temperament of those movies permeates the label, involving a rigorous but sumptuous attention to period detail, a stylized naturalism that makes almost every scene a well-staged old postcard, the politics of imperialism traipsing through the background but never really getting in the way of the story, and a modest collision between conservative traditional foibles and a sensual romanticism.
Before the Rains does and doesn't fit into the Merchant-Ivory canon. On the surface it looks tailor-made for the brand under which it is presented: It chronicles a British tea plantation owner trying to expand into spice trading in the Kerala region, along the southwest coast of India, in 1937. It's lushly photographed with a careful eye toward capturing the beginning of the waning days of the British Raj. And against this backdrop it charts an extramarital affair between a British man and an Indian woman.
But that is where the comparisons to the familiar Merchant-Ivory trappings end. As shot and directed by Indian cinematographer and director Santosh Sivan, Before the Rains feels more interested in the Indian perspective during this time period. As a result, its leads are not British actor Linus Roache and American actress Jennifer Ehle, as the enterprising spice businessman and his wife, but Indian performers Rahul Bose and Nandita Das. It helps that both Bose and Das are silent-movie-star attractive, with the sort of majestic profiles and infinitely expressive eyes that don't need words to convey restrained desire or internal conflict.
Roache's Henry Moores is the obstinate British colonial, a man who wants to build a road up the side of a mountain to be able to get tea and spices off it and export them to the rest of the world. Bose's T.K. is his jack-of-all-trades assistant, an English-educated Indian man who plows through English-language books but who also knows any mountain pass has to side wind through the jungle to make sure it doesn't wash away during monsoon season. Das' Sajani is Moores' housekeeper, a gorgeous village woman who returns to her husband every night even though she may have had a surreptitious, intimate encounter with Moores that afternoon. But when Moores' wife (Ehle, absolutely nailing the passive condescending haughtiness of colonial noblesse oblige) and son return from England and Sajani's husband learns of her affair and beats her, she flees to Moores' plantation and he asks T.K. to spirit her away, forcing the man who represents the literal intersection of a British education and local Indian tradition to choose sides.
Before the Rains is an adaptation of one story from Dan Verete's 2001 movie Asphalt Zahov that more explicitly dramatized the clash between modern and traditional in its Israel setting. Screenwriter Cathy Rabin's translation to colonial India keeps that tension intact but also ratchets up the melodrama, which in the hands of a director less visually attuned than Sivan might have spelled disaster. He diffuses the potentially mawkish moments with smart shot selections and stunning visuals, abstracting bodies touching in tight closeups contrasted with long shots isolating them in nature by photographing them through mazes of foliage, shading their pair in a mood of two people dwarfed by the place in which they find themselves. Throughout Rains Sivan makes such casually disarming decisions, tautly moving toward his movie's inevitable conclusion.
Inevitable only because Before the Rains plies that old saw in its first act, introducing a firearm that everybody knows must go off by the movie's close. Fortunately the movie takes a sleek tact to get there. T.K. is Rain's conflicted heart and soul, and Bose invests him with ambitious intelligence and a tragic awareness. T.K. is a man straddling the modern future and the local past, the British and the Indian, and he sees what's going on around him more than any other character, but even he can't stop where the melodrama's momentum is pushing everything. Before the Rains is slightly predictable old-fashioned drama, but it is told with enough subtle twists to the formula to make it curiously compelling, if not entirely fresh.