Having recently returned from India and Nepal, I'm more inclined to sample Bollywood fare and films set in that region. So I was instantly drawn towards Santosh Sivan's Before the Rains when selecting an arthouse film to check out last weekend in L.A. Merchant-Ivory has a history of producing English speaking films with Indian locations, all composed serenely with soft lighting in sumptuous locations—and this film fits the franchise.
Heavy on melodrama, the narrative serves as allegory as a British landowner pushes to build a road through his plantation to deliver spices to the market before the monsoon season makes construction impossible. Set in southern India in 1937, the coming decade also is a period of great transition destined to result in India's independence. All that resides in the background, as the story centers on predictably tragic adulterous affair between the landowner and his strikingly beautiful servant. Both are married, so not only do they violate traditional race and caste customs, but they violate legal bonds recognized by both the local village and British societies. Such actions can ever be left unpunished in this genre.
Landowner Henry Moores (Linus Roache) comfortably lives in a large plantation home with wife Laura (Jennifer Ehle) and young son Peter (Leo Benedict), yet changing times and the ever present bank threaten Moores' peaceful living conditions. Henry will never get ahead maintaining his tea plantation, but discovery of cinnamon in the hills promises much larger profits; the challenge is transport. Thus, his right hand man T.K. (Rahul Bose) is indispensible for engineering a road that will hold even under the coming monsoons. T.K. becomes conflicted on multiple fronts. Although he's a local villager, T.K. has been educated in England and strives to live between two worlds—at times, inexplicably remains loyal to his corrupted employer.
In the beginning, Laura and Peter are back in England, and Henry soon signals his lust for his servant Sajani (Nandita Das). The feeling is mutual, and they sneak off to re-fill a honey jar in a "sacred grove"—forbidden ground for local villagers, so thought to be safe for their sexual trysts. However, two young boys witness the meeting and are able to identify the woman (but not her partner). This leads to a series of events that puts the lives of Sajani, Henry and his family, and T.K. all in danger. It also threatens to shut down the entire road project and bankrupt the plantation owner.
The general thrust of the plot is easy to follow; it gets lost in the details. It's just difficult to fathom all the coincidences and events that magically fall together to construct the inevitable tragedy, and it's hard to get involved with a story that has no character to stand behind. The three major characters all make dreadful decisions that guarantee a bad outcome, and none of them possess a strong moral center that helps them cope with their situation. Before the Rains is pretty enough to look at, and contains touches of Indian culture, but the contrived plot and shallow characters just don't hold up long term—and it won't even take a monsoon to erase the images from this mundane project.