Someone should remind Judge William Lee to bring in the laundry off the clothesline.
Passion has its price
The Merchant Ivory company presents Indian director Santosh Sivan's English language debut. Set in 1937 India, Before the Rains looks at the repercussions of an interracial romance between a British settler and his Indian housemaid. Director-cinematographer Sivan is a masterful visual storyteller and his skill with the camera coupled with a strong script makes this story more substantial than the usual period romance.
Facts of the Case
Henry Moores (Linus Roache, The Namesake) is a British spice planter in southern India during the days leading up to the country's struggle for independence. Henry's grand plans for his farm and the surrounding region involve cutting a road through the jungle. This will require the cooperation of the local community, but Henry's optimistic about this venture between the two cultures. The British bankers lending the money for Henry's project think it is a manageable risk, so long as the road is finished before the monsoon season.
Henry's desire for cross-cultural relations also extends to his engaging in an affair with his housemaid. Sajani (Nandita Das) and Henry are careful to conduct their adulterous romance with caution and stealth, but Henry's right-hand man, T.K. Neelan (Rahul Bose), has his suspicions. One day the lovers are spotted at a pond and whispered rumors begin to circulate in the village. Fleeing her abusive husband, Sajani arrives at the Moores' house, but she is turned away. The revelation of their affair would destroy his marriage and jeopardize the road project, so Henry instructs T.K. to send Sajani away. Her disappearance soon arouses more questions and the two men must decide how far they will go to protect Henry's secret.
Before the Rains starts out like a standard romance set against an exotic backdrop. The beautiful scenery of lush, green mountains and dense jungles teem with life and the possibility of new discoveries. This is environment we meet the two lovers, discretely kissing in a quiet room, but it isn't long before we realize something is amiss. Sajani hides so as not to be seen with Henry when they leave in his truck. T.K. watches the passing vehicle with knowing eyes but he says nothing to the other Indian workers. Before the first act is through, director Santosh Sivan pulls the rug out from under this interracial romance. Henry and Sajani are not star-crossed lovers; they are reckless cheaters. Sajani's husband, in an arranged marriage, is jealous and abusive. Henry's wife Laura (Jennifer Ehle, Sunshine (1999)) is growing increasingly impatient with her husband's coldness.
Linus Roache is convincing as the morally confused Henry. He seems like an admirable protagonist at first, because he believes he can work harmoniously with the villagers. He loves Sajani, but he's not willing to risk losing his family and farm to satisfy his heart. It is his cold, logical reaction when his affair might be discovered that makes him more conflicted and less likeable. Furthermore, when his actions draw T.K. into the situation, Henry is faced with a choice between preserving his community reputation and his friendship with his loyal foreman.
As the web of lies gets thicker, it is T.K. who stands to lose the most. Already regarded as a Westernized Indian due to his close association with Henry, T.K. is a bit of a pariah. His community standing isn't helped when he continues to stand by his British employer during pro-independence demonstrations. Rahul Bose gives a quiet but strong performance as a loyal man who doesn't want to stick his neck out unnecessarily. His controlled body language conveys the tension of having allegiances to both cultures.
You barely have to scratch the surface to understand that this story is about British colonial guilt. Henry's idealism is reinforced by an attitude of British supremacy, and his success is achieved by the labor of the native population. He wants to be successful in India but he dismisses local customs. Consider the parallel between his liberating passion for Sajani while his wife is away, and the potential for a successful enterprise operating at the outskirts of the British Empire. Sure, he loves Sajani, but he'll never marry her. The love affair is just another freedom he enjoys while away from home—and England will always be his home. While these themes may seem obvious, Sivan's direction keeps the story focused on the characters as people and not as mere symbols. It would have been easy to make Henry a loathsome pillager of the land, but he's presented as a flawed man trying to cover up a mistake—one that turns tragic. T.K. too comes off as passive initially, but he's revealed to be a strong and thoughtful man trying to find a compromise to his divided loyalties.
Sivan established himself as a cinematographer in India prior to his first directorial assignment, Halo (1997), and he often does double duty on his films. I have seen one other of his films prior to this movie, Theeviravaathi: The Terrorist (1999), which was a thoughtful (and hopeful) portrait of a suicide bomber preparing for her mission. That movie looked cold and rain-soaked, but Sivan's compositions were almost hypnotically beautiful. For Before the Rains, his camera again captures breathtakingly gorgeous images: sunny mountain views and tranquil clearings in the dense jungle. This DVD does a great job of preserving those wonderful images. The picture shows no physical or digital defects. The image is sharp and the colors are strong, the greens and blues being especially vibrant. The 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation differs from the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio reported on IMDb but the compositions work just fine as they appear here.
There are two choices for audio presentation, 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital, and either one sounds fine. The audio track won't give your speakers too much of a workout, but the dialogue is strong and balanced nicely against the music and sound effects. The surround track makes the background sound effects a bit more distinct.
The DVD packaging does not list any supplemental materials, but the disc includes the theatrical trailer and an audio commentary with Sivan and Roache. The director and actor have a casual but informative talk with Roache playing the part of a pseudo-interviewer to prompt Sivan's comments. There are occasional pauses in their commentary, but they conduct a good talk about the development of the story and characters as well as recalling details of the shoot.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Both Henry and T.K. are fully developed characters, so it's slightly frustrating that their dilemma arises from some plainly bad decisions. This is the kind of story that requires the protagonists to dig themselves a deeper hole before they can get out, but there are a couple of times when their actions just seem stupid. (To be fair, my frustration stems from judging the characters' actions through a 21st century mindset.) Their mistakes result from the limited choices the characters would have had at that period in history, but even when it's too late to come clean with the truth, they could have at least invented a better lie rather than just play dumb.
It's also disappointing that Sajani isn't given more to do, considering her importance to the story. If we are to believe that Henry loves her, she needs to have more personality than just the pretty hired help. Reducing her to a hysterical, discarded other woman is a disservice.
The specter of colonialism hangs over the setting but the story is not overshadowed by history and politics. At the heart of this movie is the testing of loyalties between two men at a time when cross-cultural partnerships were a sign of cultural betrayal. The movie looks gorgeous and the performances are convincingly conflicted.
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