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05.14.08

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Phaedra

Alphonse Roy
ROAD CREW: Rahul Bose (left) and Linus Roache clear the forest in 'Before the Rains.'

Tempest in the Tea

A sahib and his servant break all the Raj taboos in 'Before the Rains'

By Richard von Busack


BY THE middle of Before the Rains, the latest Merchant-Ivory production, you will have picked out several different angles that might have been more intriguing if director Santosh Sivan had thought them through. In India in 1937, Henry (Linus Roache), the sahib of a tea plantation, seeks to clear some mountain land for the planting of spices. This will require a new road. With his right-hand-man, Neelan (Rahul Bose), Henry plans the route; he promotes some capital for the venture from a British banker (John Standing, doing the Masterpiece Theatre version of the bankers in the Washington Mutual commercials).

After the day is through, Henry is in his kitchen. The servant Sajani (Nadita Das) looks up and tells Henry significantly that they're out of honey—and so man and maid go off to steal some sweetness, first smoking out the bees from a hive and then heading off to the greenery themselves. Two village children observe them coupling. Word gets out, and Sajani's husband beats her and throws her out of the house. The timing couldn't be worse, since Henry's wife and child unexpectedly arrive from England. The sahib looks to Neelan to sort the matter out. The young man does so. A handgun has been lurking about the movie, and now it speaks its piece. The village—already restless because of Gandhi's agitation—is soon in full revolt.

Sivan is an interesting director. His The Terrorist remains his best work, although he has worked on a range of material, including the film that should have put Aishwarya Rai over in the West, the silly but succulent The Mistress of Spices. This might have been a more compelling film if Sivan had given us more shadings in the characters—if Sajani weren't out of her mind with love for the sahib and had instead to consider being his consort as a way of surviving, as was the situation in Shyam Benegal's Ankur. And the village's processionals and ceremonies seem about as authentically ethnic as a Waikiki luau. One very good decision Sivan makes is his casting of the superb Jennifer Ehle as Laura, Henry's betrayed wife. While Sivan's conception of the role is anachronistic—Laura is a modern woman somehow living in 1937—Ehle doesn't give the audience the sense that her husband chose a hot-blooded native woman over a frigid Briton; her blood seems quite warm.

Ultimately, what Sivan is getting at is clear by the end of the movie. At first, the road-building seems too simple a metaphor: like the old right-wing argument: "You call it imperialism, but I say we gave them roads.:" Here, the English Raj is represented by the devious crooked road, which has to weave its way up a hill in order not to be washed out. Contrast that with the wisdom of Neelan's father: "No one is ever lost on a straight road." (Ah, if only there were more straight roads in the world.) In the end, the metaphor is clear if prolix: having a choice between the tribal and the colonialist road, the Indian of today must chose a third path.


Movie Times BEFORE THE RAINS (PG-13; 98 min.), directed by Santosh Sivan, written by Cathy Rabin and Dan Verete, photographed by Sivan and starring Rahul Bose, Nandita Das and Jennifer Ehle, opens May 16 at CinéArts Santana Row.


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