When the opening credits of this wonderful documentary rolled and I realised that this was going to be an outside observer’s take on the phenomenon that is India’s annual monsoon, I did experience a moment of concern about yet another westerner’s perspective on the sub-continent. Why was this appearing in an online version of the London Indian Film Festival? In the UK especially, we get a wide range of Indian-set documentary material on TV of varying quality, some excellent but some much less so and the lingering sense of Raj nostalgia and an orientalist eye is often evident. However, in this case I think the film escapes this kind of possible censure.
Sturla Gunnarsson is a distinguished filmmaker, born in Iceland but raised and educated in Canada where he began work with the National Film Board and developed a stellar career in documentary and fiction for cinema and TV. I feel ashamed not to know about his long and successful career – my only defence being the usual one that Canadian filmmaking still struggles to get distribution in the UK. Monsoon is not his first film set in India and this becomes evident very quickly.
Gunnarsson offers us several different ways of thinking about the annual monsoon. One is through the stories of individual characters – a family in a village on the backwaters in Kerala, a bookie in Kolkata, a retired meteorologist in Pune etc. Another is about the sheer physical presence of the monsoon and the spiritual questions it raises about how the need to cope with such powerful natural forces has an impact on a large and diverse country like India. In subtle ways the film also makes comments on social, economic and political questions about India. The film was shot on 4K digital and must be very impressive on cinema screens. The stunning imagery is accompanied by an excellent music score by Andrew T. Mackay and the Bombay Dub Orchestra.
The structure of the film follows roughly the course of the monsoon which hits Southern Kerala in the first few days of June and moves North and East over the next few weeks.One of the narrative drivers of the film is the attempt by government meteorologists and climate scientists to predict accurately when and how the monsoon will move across the country. In 2013 the rains are unusually heavy in Kerala and flooding hits the Prasad family who Gunnarsson has chosen to follow. But further north in the lee of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra no rain falls for the fourth year in a row. Government announcements have to be carefully timed to avoid too much stock market speculation – but the bookie in Kolkata seems able to maintain his business, betting on the rain simply on the basis of studying the clouds. Gunnarson himself provides narration. He is calm, speaking softly and asking questions but generally unobtrusive. He does, however, also hint at more probing questions.
The sequences in Mumbai inevitably mention Bollywood, with a chance for Moushumi Chatterjee to reminisce about shooting Manzil (1979) with a young Amitabh Bachchan. Also inevitable perhaps, Gunnarsson’s camera wanders through Dharavi but presents us with two very different stories in the densely-crowded slum now deluged by the monsoon. One features a man from the least advantaged of all social groups in India who has become a barrister and is making a plea in the High Court and another features people making animal sacrifices in the rain. Gunnarsson admits that he doesn’t really understand these rituals and his cinematographer Van Royko records these scenes as part of the general coverage of Mumbai during the monsoon. The final locations for the film’s narrative are the states of Assam and Meghalaya in the far North East of India. The National Park in Assam needs the monsoon rains to replenish the natural environment for its endangered species like the Indian rhino which becomes vulnerable at this time of year to poachers. Meghalaya has the great waterfalls that see the rains eventually rushing to replenish the Brahmaputra river system. At this point Gunnarsson himself is overtaken by the emotional and spiritual impact of the rains.
If I have one slight criticism, it is that the film doesn’t clarify aspects of the movement of the monsoon winds. At one point we see meteorologists recording a front moving north-westwards across the Bay of Bengal, but the impact finally comes from the South West which is why Southern Kerala is hit first. This is part of the complexity of the monsoon weather systems, with the Arabian Sea branch of the monsoon hitting first. Equally, the narrative structure of the film suggests that Meghalaya receives the rain last, but actually the town of Cherrapunji (‘the wettest place on Earth’) which appears in the film, begins to receive heavy rain in June which then peaks in July. This the ‘Bay of Bengal’ branch which picks up more moisture as it heads north-eastwards and then when it meets the Eastern Himalyas, turns back towards the rest, after unloading much of its water over Assam and Meghalaya. But it’s too much to ask the film to explain all this in detail, I think. What the film does do, quite neatly is to use small symbols to mark where each sequence is filmed.
This is certainly a documentary I would recommend. It offers visual storytelling about the impact of weather systems with a focus on personal stories. In the wider context, the monsoon can cause great damage through both flooding and drought, starvation and landslip and so on. People die from the impact and 70% of India’s rainfall occurs in the period from June to September. This film will give you a good idea why it is so important to the Indian economy and to Indian culture. The voiceover is in English with some subtitles for statements by people speaking local languages.