Tagged: Santosh Sivan

Before the Rains (India/US/UK 2007)

Nandita Das and Jennifer Ehle

Nandita Das and Jennifer Ehle

Before the Rains is an intriguing film, though I fear that it will be ignored by several different audiences, each of whom might enjoy it for different reasons. I enjoyed every frame of the film, but I’m biased. I’m a big fan of the colonial melodrama, of Santosh Sivan the director-cinematographer, of its two Indian stars and of Kerala – the most beautiful part of the world I’ve ever visited. The long shots of tea plantations, mountain sunsets and waterfalls in Before the Rains are almost worth the price of admission alone.

The story comes across as a recreation of a classic raj melodrama – one perhaps written by Somerset Maugham. I half expected Bette Davis to emerge from the planter’s house. Louis Bromfield’s book The Rains Came (1937) produced two films, one in 1939 (with Myrna Loy) and one in 1955 (with Elizabeth Taylor). ‘Before the Rains’ is a title which points to the signalling of the climax of the melodrama when the first drops of the monsoon rains fall – most memorably at the end of Black Narcissus (1947). Yet, these are all narratives constructed by American/European writers, produced by Hollywood or UK studios and focusing on a white woman. Before the Rains reverses the narrative focus – the passion comes from an Indian woman, its consequences fall on an Indian man and the director is working with the colonial history of his own state. But the final twist is that he has borrowed the whole narrative from a film about Jews and Bedouins in the Israeli desert (Yellow Asphalt: Three Desert Stories, Israel 2001). (It’s worth noting that there are Indian historical novels that deal with this period in South India, but they wouldn’t provide the British characters that this UK/US financed film requires.)

The story involves a British planter, Henry Moores (Linus Roache) who is having a passionate affair with his housemaid Sanjani (Nandita Das). His wife (played by Jennifer Ehle) and son are travelling back from the UK where the boy is at school. This is 1937 in the Munnar region of South India, part of the princely state of Travancore (Kerala was not actually created until 1956). The third major character is T.K. Neelan (Rahul Bose), one of the important characters in the raj melodrama – the Indian man, educated in an English language school and caught between his village and the planter he works for as foreman. The context is important, so all the action takes place in the midst of demonstrations by an increasingly vocal local independence movement.

Philip Kemp, who reviews the film in Sight and Sound (August 2008), usually does a very good job on Asian films, but in this case I think he reads it in a misleading way. He criticises the film for being too predictable or not believable in terms of the characters’ actions. But this isn’t a ‘realist drama’. The characters all play symbolic roles. It’s a melodrama – one in which the ‘excess’ is there in the beauty and the expressionist nature of the cinematography and the acting. Yes, the script is a bit of a mess, but the execution of the melodrama is flawless and the issues surrounding the symbolic nature of the characters leads the attentive viewer into quite complex debates about the historical events and what is being represented. The opening titles present the dreaded words “Merchant Ivory presents”, but this isn’t a conventional adaptation of a literary novel – it’s much more interesting (and to be fair to James Ivory, his Indian-based films with Ismail Merchant were, in my view, superior to the later, more famous productions). I for one didn’t find Before the Rains predictable, perhaps because I refuse to play the game of trying to guess what happens next. As a result, I was on the edge of my seat for the last few minutes.

Moores and T.K. look out from the path of the new road – one of several shots reminiscent of Black Narcissus.

Moores and T.K. look out from the path of the new road – one of several shots reminiscent of Black Narcissus.

The metaphorical basis of the story derives from the other main plot element. Moores decides to build a road through the hills to enable him to plant spices (cardamom, cloves, peppers) and to ship them out more efficiently. For this he needs T.K. to find the ‘right road’ that will survive the rains and to organise the local labour – and he needs the local British banker to fund the operation. As some perceptive commentators have pointed out, the road is a metaphor for India, both up to independence and after 1947. T.K. also needs to find the right road for himself to travel. Moores and the bank risk investment at a time when the future of the raj is in doubt. Moores himself risks all because of his relationship with Sanjani. What she (as a married woman in the village) has to gain or lose is just as important. Unlike the British woman, she has few options – a metaphor for women in India both in the independence struggle and ever since?

A further level of meaning can be drawn from the film in relation to ideas about Indian cinema. Santosh Sivan is from a family of South Indian filmmakers. A graduate of the Indian national film school in Pune, he has worked in two of India’s main commercial cinemas in Chennai and Mumbai as both cinematographer and director. He has also made his own low budget film in Tamil (see the post on The Terrorist) – a film which might be considered as part of ‘parallel cinema’. Before the Rains is a hybrid of different modes of Indian cinema and the Merchant Ivory mode of ‘quality cinema’. It sounds impossible, but it works. There are moments when Sivan goes for big close-ups which recall The Terrorist, but there are also nicely staged crowd scenes which reminded me of moments in Bhowani Junction, the 1956 Hollywood-British raj melodrama, which has a similar story in several ways. There is a tension in the film whenever it feels like Sivan will move into ‘Bollywood mode’ – but he never does. (I think it was probably a wise move not to select CinemaScope for this film – which would have set up the possibility of both Hollywood and Bollywood in terms of ‘epic scale’.)

The most notable aspect of melodrama excess comes in some of the playing. I want to watch it a second time to be sure, but I remember some eye-rolling, I think from Nandita Das and Jennifer Ehle (as Mrs Moores), that would have been out of place in another film but here worked well. I should also mention the drums – I couldn’t help but think about the importance of both music and sound effects in Black Narcissus and they are equally important here. In fact there were several scenes that reminded me of the Michael Powell film. I wonder if, as a film student, Sivan has seen the Powell film? Where Before the Rains scores of course is that instead of a Surrey country park and a studio interior with an assorted cast from London’s East End, Sivan could shoot on authentic locations with appropriate casting. Perhaps the only point where casting and performance raised questions was Rahul Bose’s portrayal of the film’s most conflicted character, T.K. Neelan. I admired Bose greatly for his performance in Mr & Mrs Iyer in which he played a Bengal wild life photographer – a serious and responsible man. In Before the Rains, he looks different to the other men in his village. Unlike Nandita Das who appears to be able to play a woman from any part of India, Bose is less chameleon-like for me. More of a problem, however, is the English accent (perfectly fine in Mr & Mrs Iyer). Here he must be subservient, almost obsequious, referring to Moores as ‘Sahib’. I’m sure that the mode of speaking is ‘realistic’ for the time and place, but it makes this viewer uncomfortable. Interestingly, Bose himself seems conscious of his own typecasting as the ‘poster boy’ (he’s 41) of Indian alternative cinema, the ‘Sean Penn of India’ and I’m going to try to watch some of his mainstream comedies. (I’m also intrigued by his pairing here with Nandita Das as the two seem to share the same kind of profile as social activists and ‘alternative cinema’ stars.)

Overall, I’d recommend anyone interested in Indian cinema to watch this film and to enjoy working through its complexities – as well as enjoying Kerala on screen.

The Terrorist (India 1999)

Ayesha Dharker as Malli in one of several scenes by water.

Ayesha Dharker as Malli in one of several scenes by water.

(These notes were written for a student event addressing the concept of ‘Shocking Cinema’, part of the A Level Film Studies syllabus in the UK. The Terrorist is an example of ’emotional violence’ – physical violence is mostly off-screen, so the film was rated as ’12’ in the UK.)

This is a Tamil language film, although its director is from the neighbouring state of Kerala where Malayalam is spoken – the two languages are similar.

Plot outline

Malli is a young woman in a guerrilla army. After her lover is killed, she is chosen to be a suicide bomber. The narrative follows her preparation for the assassination of a politician. During this period, she discovers that she is pregnant. Will she go through with the mission?

Institutional background

The Terrorist was seen mainly in smaller arthouse cinemas in selected Indian cities – it was not released widely like a Hindi language ‘Bollywood movie’. Although Bollywood movies have the biggest budgets and are enjoyed by Hindi speakers (about 40% of the population) in all parts of India, in South India films in other regional languages are more widely seen. Chennai (Madras) actually produces more films than Mumbai (Bombay). The Terrorist properly belongs to what has sometimes been called the Parallel Cinema or New Cinema in India. The director, Santosh Sivan, is from Kerala, the South Western state with the highest level of education and political sophistication. He was trained at the main Indian film school in Pune and has a wide knowledge of global cinema. He has acted as cinematographer on films in both Hindi and Tamil Cinema (notably for director Mani Ratnam) and after The Terrorist directed the big budget spectacular Asoka – the story of a legendary Indian king, starring Sharukh Khan, one of the biggest Bollywood stars. In 2003 he photographed the ‘British Indian’ film Bride and Prejudice.

Sivan is a cinematographer who directs, rather than a director who photographs and The Terrorist is a low budget film in which the quality of the images becomes a central feature. Sivan exploits the lush landscapes of South India and the beauty of his leading actor. There are many close-ups and shots of water and other natural features – in stark contrast to the violence of the armed struggle.

The Terrorist was seen at the Cairo Film Festival by the Hollywood actor John Malkovich, who wrote enthusiastically about the film and helped its release in the West. Made for only $50,000, one small New York cinema took $3,000 a day in its opening run. (see http://www.rediff.com/news/2000/jan/21us3.htm)

Civil war in Sri Lanka

The film does not explain the ‘real world’ background to the specific political struggles being explored. The assumption is that it refers to the Civil War in Sri Lanka and its effects in India. Sri Lanka has a majority population of Sinhalese Buddhists (about 14 million), but in the North Eastern corner of the island, the majority population is Tamil and Hindu (about 4 million). This Tamil minority is linked directly to the people of Tamil Nadhu, the Indian state in South Eastern India with a population of 62 million. Since the 1980s Tamil separatists have been fighting against the Sinhalese government in Sri Lanka. The struggle also has major implications in India as Tamil Nadhu is one of the most important Indian states. (Look on a map to see how close Sri Lanka is to Tamil Nadhu.)

Extracts from an interview with writer/director/cinematographer Santosh Sivan on http://www.rediff.com/broadband/2000/sep/05trans.htm
“The idea came when I was talking to a friend of mine, Joe Samuel, who on the day of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination could not travel. That day we spent a lot of time talking about the assassination and were wondering what could have made her do it. This stayed with me for quite some time. So finally when I wanted to make a film I decided that since in our country women are considered very creative people here you have a person who is very destructive.

Maybe if you put a woman in a natural environment where she is very much associated with nature, it rains, there’s violence and very real things and maybe she starts feeling differently! Maybe it affects her. I liked the whole idea of how these thoughts run through someone’s head. So we did a lot of screen tests. We finally discovered Ayesha Dharker who I thought was simply beautiful because she didn’t need not to talk to express her feelings which was I think what I like about her.”

On the reaction of Western audiences to The Terrorist
It is about a subject which is very much in the news. It has a universal appeal to it. The whole idea that here is a film about a terrorist without much of violence in it and not much bloodshed made it a very different film. Even though it is not a very ‘audience friendly’ film, it still has evoked interest in an educated audience, which supports the film.”

The background to the Rajiv Ghandi assassination
Assassinations have had a devastating effect on Indian political life since Independence in 1947. The ‘father figure’ of peaceful resistance to the British, Mahatma Ghandi, was killed in 1948 by a Hindu fundamentalist unwilling to accept Ghandi’s belief in the equality of Muslims in India. Indira Ghandi (no relation, but the daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawarhal Nehru), Prime Minister of India for all but three years from 1966, was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984, following repression of Sikh militants. She was succeeded as Prime Minister by her son Rajiv as leader of the Congress Party, which then lost the 1989 election. Rajiv Ghandi was assassinated by Tamil separatists in 1991.

The following extract from http://www.lankalibrary.com/pol/rajiv.htm is © Asia Times, by K T Rajasingham

When he was about five metres from the stage, he received silk scarves from four persons – one being Latha Kannan, a lady Congress worker, whose daughter Kokila recited a Hindi song in his favor. Suddenly a young bespectacled women, about 25 years old with a sandalwood garland in her hand, popped up in the line to greet Rajiv Gandhi. Some eyewitness had seen this women moving towards Rajiv Gandhi and bending down, genuflecting to pay respects, by touching his feet.

At that very moment, at 10.18, a shuddering loud explosion was heard. Though there was a heavy concentration of policemen and Congress workers around Rajiv Gandhi, immediately after the loud explosion, he was thrown about 1.75 meters to the left, inside the barricade. According to some eyewitness reports, the explosion produced a flash of light about 3 meters high, which lasted for a few seconds, followed by a thick pall of smoke. The blast created a forceful impact, throwing people about, and in all, along with Rajiv Gandhi, 18 persons were killed, including nine policemen, and 33 persons, including 12, policemen were injured.

“The intelligence Bureau later briefed the informal meeting of the CCPA [Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs] about the technology of the assassination based on the inspection of the scene of the blast, discussions with the eye witnesses and experts (including doctors and forensic science experts) study of the photographs, examination material objects recovered from the scene etc. It revealed that: (i) The IED [Improvised Explosive Device] was carried on the body of an unidentified woman wearing a green salwar and mustard colored kameez (ii) It was a highly sophisticated and powerful device which had a foolproof triggering mechanism, electric detonator and a well concealed body jacket to house the IED; (iii) Plastic explosive of the RDX variety was used; (iv) Cause of death of Rajiv Gandhi and the woman later identified as Dhanu, who was carrying the IED, was a direct impact from the blast; (v) Small steel balls (or pellets) were used to create an intense impact; (vi) The assassin appeared to have intimate knowledge of the function, its sequence etc; (vii) Highest impact of the blast was borne by the unidentified woman followed by Rajiv Gandhi. It indicates that the epicenter of the blast was closest to the assassin followed by Rajiv Gandhi.”– The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi: Unanswered Questions and Unasked Queries, Dr Subramanian Swamy, pages 114-115.

Discussion questions for The Terrorist

1. Does Malli press the button at the end of the film? If she doesn’t, what do you think stops her?

2. Could The Terrorist be described as a film which utilises Hitchcock’s ideas about ‘pure cinema’? In what ways does it make use of elements of ‘film language’?

3. Did you identify with Malli? Which techniques are most effective in allowing us to have some idea about how this remarkable young woman might feel?

4. What do you think is the moral position of the film? Does it ask us to identify with a murderer?

5. Is the film shocking?