There's a disappointing irony at play in Before the Rains. The story is set in 1930s India. The director is Indian. Two of the main characters are Indian. Yet by the end of the movie, the viewer could be forgiven for knowing more about the British side of this colonialist melodrama than the filmmaker might have intended.
For all of director Santosh Sivan's (Bride and Prejudice) formidable visual sensibilities, he plods his way predictably through the culture clash of a story. T.K. (Rahul Bose), an Indian villager, finds his loyalties challenged when he discovers the love affair between his boss, British spice harvester Henry Moores (Linus Roache), and the boss' married Indian maid Sajani (Nandita Das).
At first, T.K. believes in the power of globalization. As he tells his former teacher, now a leader for Indian independence, "With mutual cooperation comes mutual prosperity." His former teacher replies, "Partnership requires equals." But T.K. learns quickly that he is no equal, and spends most of the movie trying to find some kind of middle ground.
That's not easy with a boss like Henry, who, as played by Roache, is a walking, talking metaphor of unwitting Western exploitation. He uses Sajani just like he uses the land, not fully realizing the consequences of either action. In fact, the affair threatens to be exposed just as Henry's wife (an underused Jennifer Ehle) returns to India. From there, tragedy is only a bullet away. Henry keeps dragging T.K. down with him, but for T.K., the situation is a matter of life and death.
Before the Rains could have been a much more compelling story. Bose makes for a sympathetic T.K., as hopeful as he is conflicted. He's reminiscent of a softer, less flashy version of Hank Azaria. Nandita Das' Sajani is like the land itself, beautiful and inviting. So it's curious, then, why Sivan seems distracted more by the exploiter than the exploited.
A cinematographer by trade, he bathes every shot in warm, rich colors and sensualizes everything from the leap of a frog and the squeeze of a honeycomb to the gush of a waterfall and the splash of a pond. When Henry makes love to Sajani, you can tell it's an affair with a land and its people, but devoid of understanding or commitment.
Casting Roache as Henry is either genius or wrongheaded, depending on Sivan's intentions with the character. (I can't figure out which.) Roache has always been an irksome actor despite his boyish good looks. Too often he's ineffectual and blank-faced, and rarely more than a cipher in the roles I've seen him play (Priest, TV's "RFK").
Maybe that's why Sivan chose him, for Roache's Henry is too dull to be evil and too paralytic to be sympathetic. He's just ... there. And yet Sivan spends a hell of a lot of time in Moore's household, with Henry fretting over his predicament and his wife, realizing how badly he's messed everything up for everyone.
That's not melodrama; it's domestic silliness.
Shots of the Indian side of the equation, however, snap the viewer to attention, but they come too fleetingly. Just as Sajani's funeral kicks into gear and we watch as a village mourns, Sivan turns his camera away, returning only too briefly.
Even when T.K. and Henry square off in a sort-of showdown of wills and cultures, Sivan keeps his resolution elliptical. He misses the opportunity to tell the viewer more about the country he seems to love so much.
The mystery continues.