Before the Rains
Friday, May 16, 2008
Set in South India in 1937, Before the Rains presents us with three main characters. Henry Moores (Linus Roache) is an Englishman who has big plans for a spice plantation in Kerala. But in order to realize his dream, he will need to build a road for proper access. Helping Moores is T.K. (Rahul Bose), a local villager that Moores depends on as a mediator. The film opens with Moores giving T.K. an English revolver as a gift. But this sign of friendship also foreshadows the tragedy to come. The third pivotal character is Sajani (Nandita Das), Moores' housekeeper. Both Moores and Sajani are married to other people but that doesn't stop them from having an affair. Although Moores seems to have genuine affection for Sajani, their affair seems more like an exotic diversion than a deep felt passion that he plans to pursue. In fact, you get no sense that he has ever thought the affair through to its possible consequences. Since Moores is both British and male, he doesn't worry about repercussions. But it's very different for Sajani. If Sajani's husband discovers her infidelity, she could be put to death. Throw into this mix Sajani's abusive husband and Moores' returning wife, and you have a volatile cultural and emotional cocktail.
Santosh Sivan's Before the Rains (Roadside Attractions)
Sivan moves the action briskly, introducing the men's friendship, the affair, and the groundwork for all of this to blow up before the film is barely 30 minutes old. He also reveals his cinematographer's eye as he captures breathtaking vistas and lush landscapes. But Sivan doesn't lose sight of the characters against this impressive backdrop. Moores is presented as a foreigner in India and as one of the colonizers, he has an air of power and privilege, and to the villagers that often comes across as arrogance. But he initially seems like a decent man. T.K. is smart and ambitious but in an idealistic rather than ruthless way. He also wants to move within two worlds. Sajani is someone who is looking for escape from a life that she is not satisfied with. None of them intends to commit harm but all three end up behaving in ways that have serious consequences. In a sense, Moores and Sajani represent the past - Moores as a symbol of Britain's fading Empire and Sajani showing us how women are trapped in cultural repression. But T.K. is the only one who seems capable of change and who possesses enough awareness to see what hard choices he will have to make in order to have a future in a new India. In many ways, T.K. is the heart and hope of the story.
Rahul Bose as T.K. in Before the Rains (Roadside Attractions)
As adapted by Cathy Rabin, the film positions itself at a turning point in India. In 1937, there is a growing nationalist movement that wants to get the British out of their country. Moores, much like British colonialism, seems to have come to the country with the intention of doing something good but just can't seem to avoid displaying an arrogance, callousness, and blindness that will lead to tragedy. Initially, Moores and T.K. serve up a model for cross cultural partnership, and maybe if they were building a bridge rather than a road their story would have ended better. But Rabin and Sivan deliberately choose a road rather than a bridge as the image to represent their collaboration. Unlike a bridge that joins two sides together, the road is depicted more of an act of intrusion on nature, destroying as it attempts to build.
Sivan has focused successfully on women in his past films, most notably the young girl who trains with guerillas in The Terrorist , so it's strange that the weakest link in the film is Sajani. She's made to be a creature of passion and desire, and seems to lack the component of intellect. So not only does Indian society in the 30s relegate her to a lowly position but so to do the filmmakers. It's something of a stereotype to have the women represent the heart, emotion, and romance, and trap her in melodrama. In addition, her plight is given the least attention. She's in a marriage she hates with a husband prone to abuse, and she has an affair with a man who's not willing to give in to his heart because it's not a practical course of action. At one point she says she has never had any choice, and it's precisely that circumstance that Rabin and Sivan needed to pay more attention to. Instead the film pushes her aside too early and tips the balance of the film very clearly in favor of the men.
The men of Before the Rains (Raodside Attractions)
Roache (is it me or is he starting to look like Gabriel Byrne?) is good as Moores, although we're never quite sure where his emotions truly lie. Plus his ambiguity arises more from the filmmakers failure to fill in details that from the character's own personality. Bose impresses the most with his strong, mostly silent performance. He is both an observer and a reluctant participant in the tragedy, and in Bose's performance we see the intellectual awakening and politicization of a young man. Das, who has been superb in Deepa Mehta's films, struggles with the least satisfyingly drawn character. Her performance lacks the subtlety she has displayed in her previous works.
Before the Rains (rated PG-13 for violent content and a scene of sexuality, and in English and Malayalam with English subtitles) has more fire than most films bearing the Merchant Ivory label usually boast. But despite the passions of the characters and the upheaval of the story, it fails to be as compelling as Sivan's more personal The Terrorist , which had an intimacy with its lead character that Before the Rains simply lacks.
Companion viewing: The Terrorist, Fire, Heat and Dust, The Householder, Wings of the Dove
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