What relative good or bad resulted from European colonialism is an endless discussion, but certainly the relocation of privileged white people to exotic far-flung locales was a boon to writers.
At their laziest, such stories offered off-the-shelf conflicts tied to inequities in power and general unfairness; stock characters; plenty of local color, by way of curious rituals and manners; and ample opportunity for moralizing from afar. The best of the colonial stories could elevate trite melodramas to works that were emotionally devastating, scathing critiques or simply, a thoughtfully wrought slice of melancholia that left all its players damaged and culpable.
Set in colonial India, Santosh Sivan's drama Before the Rains aims for such heights, but can't even get a good running start. Its set-up is perfunctory, its conclusion unsatisfying. In the middle, there's a prettily filmed tale in which a small cast of characters plays out an age-old narrative of romance and betrayal, heightened by India's impending changes: It is 1937, the waning days of British rule, and independence movements are on the rise.
Briton Henry Moores (Linus Roache) owns a tea plantation amid the hilly jungle of southern India. We first meet Moores as he is marking out his new private road into the hills that will facilitate his expansion into the lucrative spice trade: "Cinnamon, pepper, cardamom!" At his side is his "man" T.K. (Rahul Bose), an educated local who is Moores' trusted employee, liaison to the natives and occasional drinking buddy. As a friendly gesture, Moores gives an appreciative T.K. an English pistol -- and Chekov fans nod sagely. (The playwright famously opined: "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.")
Back at Moores' attractive English-cottage-style home awaits his Indian housekeeper, Sajani (Nandita Das), with whom the boss is dallying. Both are married -- Sajani to an abusive villager -- and only T.K. shares the knowledge of their reckless affair. Did I mention there's a gun? After driving Sajani home, T.K. shows it off to his best mate, Sajani's brother.
While we're waiting for the gun to go off, Moores' wife (Jennifer Ehle) and small son return from England. Additionally, the bank loan for the road comes through courtesy of a tweedy old colonial who harrumphs and warns Moores that, in default, he could lose the house, plantation, everything.
The road, you see, is a metaphor, representing colonialism's chin-up determination to convert foreign lands and their people to profitable use. Moores is repeatedly warned that the coming monsoon (read also: rising nationalism) could wash out the road, but he is confident his twisty design will thwart all threats.
Now, I don't mind an easy metaphor or two, but Before the Rains unpacks cartons of them, many as lumbering as the tub Mrs. Moores brings from England. T.K., caught between two cultures, constantly traverses between his shack on Moores' property and his village. When it all goes pear-shaped, it's clear that this man, with one foot loyal to the colonial rule that has benefited him and the other still planted in the dusty motherland eager to shake off the British mantle, will be the arbitrator, superseding both cultures as the New Man of the Future.
Before the Rains lays out a predictable journey for its few protagonists: "No one is ever lost on a straight road" goes one of the film's aphorisms, and that's true of the plot as well. I also wish the film offered more character development: There is scarcely any emotional impact of what amounts to devastating betrayals, and part of the fault lies with these cardboard cut-outs.
But if the story is familiar and easy to parse, the film does offer an attractive excursion. Produced by Merchant-Ivory, Before has the high gloss one expects from that production house. All light is late-afternoon golden, colors pop from the screen, linen jackets are wrinkled just so, and the camera moves languidly through lovely, lush scenery. Enjoy while you can, because soon -- without a doubt -- it will start to rain. In English, and Malayalam, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., June 13. Manor