Mechanical through and through, Before the Rains commences with English spice trader Henry Moores (Linus Roache) gifting a gun to right-hand man T.K. (Rahul Bose), thereby immediately turning the story into a listless waiting game to see how said firearm will change the lives of these two men. That wait isn’t as long as one might expect, but such minor timing surprises aren’t nearly enough to prop up Santosh Sivan’s been-there-done-that colonial drama. In 1937 Kerala, India, the entrepreneurial Moores endeavors—thanks to a bank loan, and in part to prove his doubting father-in-law wrong—to build a mountainside road to facilitate the transportation of tea and spices. This professional goal is complicated by his clandestine affair with married Indian housemaid Sajani (Nandita Das), especially once two children spot the couple, whose cross-cultural relationship would cause unrest in the local village, during their tastefully shot sexual rendezvous at a jungle waterfall. Moores’s dainty wife and child soon arrive from England, and shortly thereafter Moores and Sajani’s romance is uncovered, leading to that fateful gun-related incident, an unpleasant cover-up, and stolid moral dilemmas involving Moores and the loyal yet increasingly discontent T.K. Minor references to India’s accelerating resistance to British rule provide a dash of historical flavor. More relevant context for Before the Rains, however, is its myriad cinematic period piece predecessors—many from Merchant Ivory (which “presents” Sivan’s latest)—whose straightforward structure and prestigious tone are here dutifully replicated. Close-ups of frogs jumping off rocks into ponds and bees crawling over honeycomb are the director’s means of conveying the atmosphere of his locale, though aesthetic adequacy and fine performances by the cast (in roles that are all thoroughly without interest) don’t alter the fact that this film about illicit love and spice trading is almost completely devoid of heat or flavor.
Before the Rains @ the Tribeca Film Festival
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.