22 February 2009

BEFORE THE RAINS (Dir. Santosh Sivan, 2007, India/UK/US)

‘It was a wonderful feeling to work with talented actors from England, the United States and India. Each brought something unique to the production…’
- Santosh Sivan

What has become typical of the way in which Indian cinema is covered, a few grudging paragraphs were given to the coverage of Sivan’s first English language feature in the British mainstream press, and though none of the journals or film magazines ran a feature on the film’s production, disappointing considering the illuminating nature of the cinematography, ‘Before the Rains’ is a superbly crafted piece of cinema that reminded me of the intelligence and richness with which Merchant Ivory depicted India in many of their early films starring Shashi Kapoor. (Interestingly, ‘Before the Rains’ was marketed as a Merchant Ivory Presentation – I had mistaken it for one of their newest productions). Sivan’s complementary attitudes towards what is undoubtedly a globalised co- production harks back to the positive sentiments forged by Merchant Ivory when they made under rated films like ‘The Householder (1963)’, ‘Bombay Talkies (1970)’ and ‘Shakespeare Wallah (1965)’.

Set in familiar Sivan territory of Kerala, ‘Before the Rains’ is a 1930s period film. A colonial melodrama, the narrative focuses predominately on the character of T.K. (Rahul Bose) who works as a servant and guide for a British spice merchant, Henry Moores (Linus Roache). The allegiances of T.K. are brought into doubt when Henry’s illicit relationship with Sajani, a local village girl, becomes a source of controversy in the local community. As T.K. and Henry conspire to cover up a tragic accident, the local community responds to the death of Sajani by conducting their own investigation. Many of the reviews were critical of the supposedly heavy handed use of a revolver as an obvious narrative device:

‘English planter, Henry Moores presents his assistant T.K. with a revolver as a token of friendship. It seems an improbable choice of gift; T.K. is a quiet, unaggressive sort, and if it’s protection against the wild animals a rifle would make more sense…’

- Sight and Sound, August 2008, Volume 18 Issue 8, Film review by Philip Kemp, pg 53.

Philip Kemp’s uninviting review for Sight and Sound seems to overlook many crucial facts related to the character of T.K. (Rahul Bose). I would put forward the idea that the revolver should be interpreted as both a symbolic force of imperial corruption (it is Henry Moores who inadvertently brings violence into the life of someone as politically benign as T.K), and also an appropriate reminder of how the Quit India Movement that serves as a significant political backdrop to Moore’s desire to build a road for his dream of spice trading was vehemently supportive of a non violent ideology, based on humanist principles of civil disobedience. Kemp seems to misinterpret the use of the revolver as such a motif has surfaced on many occasions in the films of Santosh Sivan. Such a prop has to be positioned within a wider authorial context but this is apparently problematic for many critics and film reviewers who are often dismissive of Indian directors as being able to acquire the status of auteurs. Thematically, violence and its affects on the one perpetrating the physical act is debated in both ‘The Terrorist’ and ‘Asoka’, and eventually the protagonists from both films arrive at the enlightened conclusion that the preservation of life is something quite sacred and perhaps even absolute in the context of India’s profoundly diverse cultural distinctions. Acquiring tolerance for differing religions, races and political ideologies is ultimately what makes T.K. such a prototypical Santosh Sivan character.

“The term “heritage film” was first used by Charles Barr to describe patriotic wartime fare…it describes, he says, “a genre of film which reinvents and reproduces, and in some cases simply invents, a national heritage for the screen…”

- Film Comment, 'Heritage Cinema' by Graham Fuller, Pg 36-38, September 2008, Vol 44/No 5

I’m not sure if you could label ‘Before the Rains’ as an example of heritage cinema but many striking elements that are strongly associated with this kind of film making are clearly evident throughout a mise en scene which recreates Kerala in the 1930s under the auspice of the British Raj. Take for example, the idea of the plantation and house that becomes the focus for much of the action:

‘The country-house trope is a handy metaphor for the heated, unresolved debate in Britain over so-called heritage cinema – which is not a genre but a negative critical construct that emerged in response to the neoconservative climate of the Thatcher years…’

- Film Comment, 'Heritage Cinema' by Graham Fuller, Pg 36-38, September 2008, Vol 44/No 5

In many heritage films, the stately home is not just a visual signifier of class but it is iconic of the genre and describes to us a kind of Britishness that is both indigenous and representative of the ruling elite/aristocracy. In the case of Sivan’s film, the home occupied by Henry Moores appears not as a symbol of colonial subjugation but more importantly, acts as a psychological force, reminding audiences of Sajani’s (Nandita Das) constant presence even after she has been killed. Another distinct similarity shared with contemporary heritage cinema is the film’s representation of both the female characters; Sajani and Laura (Jennifer Ehle) are positioned very much as victims of a familiar patriarchal society. Sivan is careful not to condemn Sajani’s character and the search organised by her brother presents a heartfelt and emotive representation of local Nayar traditions. The community momentarily abandons the construction of the road so that they can join in what amounts to a futile search, but such a spirit of co-operation and co-existence underlines how Indian nationalism would naturally find sympathy and understanding in even the remotest of places in India.

Like much of heritage cinema, female characters are regularly instructed by what is a repressive society to contain their sexuality and that to harbour affections is less of a taboo then to act upon them. Such a convention of both the female melodrama and heritage film clearly manifests itself in the character of Sajani. She is not allowed to desire or permitted to openly pursue her own inner feelings. It seems as though the opposition to colonialist rule is an exclusively political one that cannot provide any kind of revolution when it comes to over turning dominant patriarchal attitudes that threaten to engulf the community. This overt patriarchy is not solely attributed to the local community as Henry is also complicit in the destruction of Sajani; he is just as obstinate, selfish and protective of cultural identity as those around him.

If we were to read this film within a heritage cinema context then the unexpected departure of Sajani provides a real crisis in terms of gender and its centrality at the narrative. Typically, the female character would continue to be viewed as the victim and much of the narrative would be continued to be motivated by her actions but in this case the absence of a Sajani does not leave a void for the spectator in terms of empathy, it on the other hand shifts the focus onto Henry who subsequently becomes a victim of his own short sightedness. In the final third of the film, it is Henry who becomes the victim, imprisoned in his own house and subjected to the traditions of the local community who threaten him with expulsion. Like ‘The Terrorist’ and ‘Asoka’, and even ‘Dil Se’ to a certain extent, water literally permeates the frame. Like trains, water seems such an integral part of the iconographic make up of Indian cinema and its presence in ‘Before the Rains’ is an elemental motif and symbol of purity that is strongly tied to Sajani’s character. Take for example the final confrontation between Henry Moores and T.K. at the end which finishes with the sound and sudden appearance of rainfall, signalling the monsoons and reminding us of yet again of Sajani’s presence. In this case, water is represented as a potentially destructive force but it carries with it something distinctly feminine.

‘The relationship between the characters is a metaphor for the promise - and the tragic flaw - of British Colonialism…’
- Santosh Sivan

Sivan’s film reminded me greatly of Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 masterpiece, ‘Black Narcissus’. Supported by an excellent set of performances from Nandita Das, Linus Roache and Rahul Bose, ‘Before the Rains’ confirms the critical reputation of Santosh Sivan as one of India’s leading film makers. The Wikipedia entry for Sivan’s latest film ‘Tahaan’ says that it has already been released in India (September 2008) and it still seems that the film is without any kind of UK distributor. The website to the film offers no confirmation about a possible UK release date either. I am getting the terrible feeling that this film will not get a UK release which is a shame because Sivan is an Indian film maker who occupies a middle ground that borrows from both indigenous and populist cinemas, but makes films that are accessible for a specialised and perhaps even dare I say it mainstream audience.



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