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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hard Rain (Before the Rains)

Love, lust and empire

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Famed Indian producer Ismail Merchant is dead, but the brand name he developed with American director James Ivory lives on. Before the Rains, by Indian filmmaker Santosh Sivan, bears the tag “Merchant Ivory Presents” and is the sort of production Messrs. Merchant and Ivory relished. Before the Rains is a carefully recreated and opulent period drama that explores the psychology of individuals grappling, and losing their grip, with the historical conditions of their time. Several important Merchant Ivory films examined the uncertain relations between East and West in colonial times, especially in India. Before the Rains is a leaf from their book, set on a tea plantation in the southern Indian state of Kerala in 1937.

Before the Rains was adapted from a recent Israeli film, Yellow Asphalt, about the dangerous cohabitation between an irresponsible Jewish road builder and the Bedouin woman with whom he had an affair. The theme is transposed without difficulty to India under the British Raj. There is even a road being constructed, which winds upwards into the misty green forest hills like a long brown snake until it finds its vista of breathtaking mountains in gray and blue.

The road is being laid by native laborers directed by the British planter Moores (Linus Roache) and his faithful Indian assistant T.K. (Rahul Bose). The master-servant relationship is amicable. T.K. was educated in an English school and serves Moores loyally. For his part the planter seems to treat his prize servant almost as a friend. He gives T.K. a revolver as a token of his trust. The gun will figure importantly as the plot proceeds. Moores drinks a toast with T.K. after a long day’s work and proposes: “To our new road, to the prospects it will bring and to us, the men of the future.”

But the future is never easy to predict, except sometimes in the movies. While his wife and son have been away, Moores has kindled a passionate affair with a servant woman, Sajani (Nandita Das), whose sensual figure clings to her sari. It’s only a matter of time before someone finds out. T.K. has probably gathered the worst. The crew of native gardeners and grooms has eyes to see. Sajani’s suspicious husband down the road in the village demands obedience and enforces it with the backside of his hand. The affair plays out furtively, with shutters closed or in the garden of delight surrounding the master’s bungalow. But passersby might always visit even the most secluded grove. It’s a dangerous game. The wages of adultery in tribal Kerala, as in many traditional societies, is death.

Young, naive and in love, Sajani imagines there might be a place for her and Moores, a new world beyond her grim arranged marriage. For his part, Moores is happy to enjoy the exotic charms of a native woman and just reckless enough to expect he can get away with it. He’s not evil but heedless and weak in character. At every fork in the road, he is willing to take the wrong turn as long as it looks like the path of least resistance. The interest owed on his misdeeds compounds as Before theRains continues. He hurts everyone, including himself.

The film’s title refers to the hasty road building that must be completed before the monsoons. It also alludes to inexorable justice and to the rising tide of Indian nationalism. Much like Harry Kumar in the beloved mini-series “The Jewel in the Crown,” T.K. is a man impaled on the cusp of cultures, an Indian who wants to adopt English ways at a time when India is pulling away from the empire towards its own dharma.

One could accuse Before the Rains of occasional melodrama, but the word is often an aspersion cast on the emotional reality of the human heart when it beats too fast. Beautifully filmed, Before the Rains basks in lush scenery and a watery motif of reflected lakes, faces and motivations. The love scenes between Moores and Sajani simmer with warmth and erotic release. Before the Rains is a tragedy of love, lust and lack of wisdom, amplified by the politics of empire and race and the clash of cultures.
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