MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Before the Rains

Even though the Indian film industry is the most prolific in the world, almost all of what American moviegoers know about Mombai and other major production centers derives from golly-gee features advancing the release of movies and musicals that borrow from the Bollywood stylebook. These have included such productions as Moulin Rouge!, The Guru, Hollywood/Bollywood, Bride and Prejudice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams, with even more hype likely to surround Mike Myers’s upcomingThe Love Guru.

Conversely, if all Indian moviegoers knew about Hollywood was what they could glean from the films of Michael Bay, Ashton Kutcher, Sharon Stone and Judd Apatow, they might assume it simply churned out loud, violent, sloppily made and sexually exploitative pictures for undemanding teenagers, bored adults and potential felons. OK, bad example … those films actually do represent what the major studios are all about these days. You get the picture, though.

Not all of the films produced in India are three hours long. Nor are all filmmakers required to include a dozen lavish song-and-dance numbers in every new release, or cast female actors who look as if they might have worn the Miss World crown, as did Aishwarya Rai.When Sony Pictures decided to stick its corporate toe into the waters of Bollywood last year, with the romantic musical Saawariya (now in DVD here), it wasn’t because the studio thought it could change the viewing habits of tens of millions of Hindi movie fanatics. It simply coveted a stake in a nearly $10 billion box-office economy and, because of cheap ticket prices, access to a vastly greater audience than could be found almost anywhere else.

Santosh Sivan’s English-language debut, Before the Rains, could never be mistaken for a product of Bollywood. It bears a much closer resemblance to David Lean’s A Passage to India, Jean Renoir’s The River and James Ivory’s Heat and Dust.

Set in the 1930s, against the backdrop of a growing nationalist movement, the film describes what happened when one British businessman ignored the possible ramifications of getting too close to his Indian housekeeper and a trusted assistant. In the absence of his vacationing wife and son, the spice grower, Moores (Linus Roache), embarks on an affair with his equally married maid, Sajani (Nandita Das). A momentary lapse in discretion reveals Sajani’s infidelity to suspicious village children, and they, in turn, report it to her husband. Afraid to acknowledge the truth, Sajani is being beaten nearly to death by the man, who also believes Moores’ aide, T.K. (Rahul Bose), is involved in the subterfuge.

It is at this point in the narrative that East meets West in the moral equivalent of a head-on collision between a steam locomotive and a donkey cart. Instead of being embraced and protected by her lover, Sanjani literally is left to her own devices. Meanwhile, T.K.’s attempts to broker a truce between the enraged villagers and his employer – whose plans for a new road and spice plantation promise prosperity for everyone – fall victim simultaneously to sexist traditions and nationalist fervor.

Moores’ primary concern, however, is keeping his involvement secret, without sacrificing his proper English marriage and road to riches. To his great discomfort, T.K. understands all too well that his ability to keep a foot in both worlds no longer is such an asset.

“Though the characters in the film fight to straddle the great cultural divide, they ultimately suffer for their attempts,” explains Sivan, whose appreciation of the physical beauty of his native Kerela manifests itself in every frame. “Sajani realizes that she and Moores cannot build a life together, while Moores and T.K. each realize that their dreams are not grounded in reality. Their vision of an India-British partnership is doomed by the divergent views of their respective cultures.

“I also wanted to convey a sense of hope … hope for T.K.’s independence and the independence of his people. Just as the darker themes of the story continue to resonate today, I feel that the theme of hope will resonate most strongly for the audience.”

The conflicts that inform the drama in Before the Rains are hardly specific to India. Indeed, Sivan’s movie was inspired specifically by a segment of Israeli director Dany Verete’s The Desert Trilogy: Yellow Asphalt: Red Roofs. In it, an Israeli farmer has an affair with his housekeeper, and, when discovered, forces his Bedouin assistant to deal with it. Screenwriter Cathy Rabin was brought in to research pre-WWII colonialism in India and adapt Red Roof for that period.

The producers elected to shoot the film in the mountainous Munnar region of Kerela, where the construction of a road – then and now – would present a huge challenge for men, machines and elephants. The remoteness of the location guaranteed that Sanjani would fare no better in her appeals for forgiveness than a Bedouin woman.

“The same thing would happen today in certain areas of the country,” allowed Bose, whose passion for causes involving gender equality, human rights and child welfare have led him to start his own non-governmental organization (NGO) and become a spokesman for several relief agencies. “A woman could be beaten, in addition to being ostracized by her family and neighbors. Under the creamy surface of Indian society, there’s tolerance for the sustained abuse of women.”

The greatest abuses, Rahul asserts, are directed at poor and undereducated Muslim girls, several dozen of whom participate in programs sponsored by the Akshara Centre. Rahul also has worked with the international Solidarity Network to provide aid to survivors of the 2004 tsunami on the Andaman and Nicobar islands. His own NGO has provided scholarships to impoverished children, so they can attend a private school on the mainland.

His active support for such causes has prompted some critics to label Bose, “the Sean Penn of Indian films.”

“If they’re comparing us as actors, it’s a massive overstatement,” he allows. “But, I wouldn’t be at all unhappy if they were referring to our political ideologies.”

Not all of the news from India is bleak. He points out that the ritual abandonment and murder of baby girls, which has appalled western media, appears to be easing. More couples, too, are adopting girls, as well.

An inordinate number of the movies that make their way from India to America concern the uneasy transition from life under the British Raj to independence, partition and democracy. In fact, Sivan and Bose agree, Indian audiences aren’t particularly interested in rehashing that period in the country’s history.

“We’re a post-colonial nation,” said Bose, who also is a member of the national Orange Indian Rugby Team. “It is true, though, British men are portrayed almost exclusively as villains. We will have come of age when British men are portrayed evenly.”

Sivan comes from a family of filmmakers. His father is a prominent director and cinematographer of Malayalam documentary films, and two of his brothers are directors. He served as cinematographer on dozens of features and documentaries before moving into the director’s chair. He continues to shoot all of the films he directs.

In a sense, Sivan has been preparing all his life to shoot Before the Rains.

“We’d drive on those mountain roads all the time, when I was a boy,” Sivan recalls. “I always wondered how those roads were made, and who worked on them.”

Although most western viewers already are aware of the majesty of India’s Kashmir region, few are familiar with the splendors of Kerela. If Before the Rains is a commercial success, Sivan’s cinematography alone could inspire India-bound tourists to re-think their itineraries.

“The visual motivations in our country are extraordinary,” said Sivan, who is being courted by producers of American movies, which could put him in the same company asGurinder Chadha, Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta. “As a cinematographer, it all comes down to how you embrace the natural light … even as it streams into our homes. Too many filmmakers try to keep out the light, or, at night, use flames and other elements to distort the natural light.”

Just as the camera can objectively observe great meteorological changes – here, from the dry to monsoon seasons — it can be employed metaphorically to signify great shifts in political and social climates.

“I love the idea of using nature to represent transitions,” he adds. “It can be used to amplify those fleeting moments of change naturally and in politics. Technically, I don’t anything differently than anyone else … it’s the same camera and Kodak film … creatively, though, it’s all about capturing the beauty of what’s already there.”

May 13, 2008

– Gary Dretzka

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

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My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon