Inspired by the “Red Roofs” segment from Dan Verete's three-part 2002 Israeli drama Yellow Asphalt, which revolves around the lives of Bedouins in the Judean desert, the visually lush Before the Rains, which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, follows the self-destructive path of a British farmer intent on creating a “spice” road through the jungle in India's Kerala region.
Capably played by Linus Roache – best known in the US for his Law & Order role – the late 1930s English spice baron seems to have it all: a beautiful wife (Jennifer Ehle), a cute son (Leopold Benedict), a loyal servant (Rahul Bose), a sexy mistress (Nandita Das), and investors willing to bet on the success of his road.
However, things don't quite go as planned. The illicit romance turns tragic, while local Indians decide that road or no road, the British might do well to pack up and go.
Directed by Santosh Sivan (who also doubled as cinematographer) from a screenplay by Cathy Rabin, Before the Rains ultimately deals with how, for better or for worse, people from different social and cultural backgrounds make difficult choices during difficult times.
In addition to the Sivan's gorgeous cinematography, I was impressed by the top-notch performances (Jennifer Ehle and Rahul Bose are particularly effective) and by Sivan's careful handling of the – potentially melodramatic – material.
Santosh Sivan has kindly agreed to take part in a brief q&a (via e-mail) for Alt Film Guide. See below.
Before the Rains is set in India in the late 1930s, though it's based on the segment “Red Roofs” from Dan Verete's three-part film Yellow Asphalt. What sparked your interest in Before the Rains? And how is the basic storyline relevant to today's world?
The [“Red Roofs” segment from the] film Yellow Asphalt was a short film; it was also quite black and white. The setting was universal, since it deals with people from different cultures, often they are attracted to, or desire, another culture. Finally it's about relations between a man and woman, which is something that's [relevant] whether it's 1930s colonial India or 2008 in New York.
While Cathy Rabin worked on the screenplay, was she instructed to write with specific actors in mind? How did the principals get chosen for their respective roles? What was it like working with an international cast in Kerala?
Cathy was quite involved in getting together the space and the storyline tight. The actors were auditioned and cast as per the script. It was fantastic working with a sound crew from the UK and actors from Hollywood, Mumbai, and Kerala. It was especially interesting since we all had to adapt to working in each other's own ways.
You doubled as the film's director and cinematographer. In the latter capacity, how did you pick the visual settings to enhance the story's drama?
The film [was] shot in Munnar, Kerala, which is a tea estate country, and just like in the story the English used to be there managing the estates. Fortunately, I was able to film the estates I had traveled through as a kid, so it was exciting to put together my own personal visual observations.
One thing that impressed me about Before the Rains is that Linus Roache's spice magnate-wannabe – despite his cheating and his lies – doesn't come across as an out-and-out villain. Was that a conscious choice?
I wanted to make Linus' character in a grey shade. It's finally about relating to someone who has to make a choice, difficult as it may be.
At times, Before the Rains has the feel – the lush visuals, the deliberate pace, the passions-under-the-surface atmosphere – of a Merchant-Ivory production. (Indeed, the film is a Merchant-Ivory presentation.) Would you say that James Ivory's films influenced your work on Before the Rains?
Ha! Not consciously. I think I've been trying to bring a flavor of a different India by telling a story set in the southern part of the country.
And finally, are you working on any projects at the moment?
I just finished a film called Tahaan, which I did in [the] Hindi language and shot totally in Kashmir. It stars Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose, Rahul Khanna, PurabVictor Banerjee, and Sarika.