“Before the Rains” is “presented” by the production entity Merchant Ivory, and its setting and circumstances – India, in the late days of the British Raj, before World War II – is certainly Merchant Ivory-ish. Too bad, though, that James Ivory didn't get his hands on this melodrama of colonial karma, or that the director's trusty screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, wasn't involved.
As scripted by Cathy Rabin and directed by Santosh Sivan, “Before the Rains” is never less than compelling, but never more than adequately realized. Linus Roache is decent enough, acting-wise, but his character is quietly contemptible: Henry Moores is an English tea planter in southwestern India, building a road to cultivate and harvest spices. Henry has his faithful “man,” T.K. Neelan (Rahul Bose) – an educated Indian, well-read, devoted – and treats him as a friend, up to a point.
But Henry also has a mistress: Unbeknownst to his wife (Jennifer Ehle), he has become involved with the housemaid, Sajani (Nandita Das). Henry says that he loves her. Sajani, wed to a man in the village, risks everything to carry on the affair, but when two boys playing in the woods spot the adulterers, a series of tragic events are set in motion.
Part of the problem with “Before the Rains” is really that the story belongs to Bose's character, T.K. – a man caught between two worlds, torn by his loyalty to “Sahib” Henry, by his childhood friendship with Sajani, and by his allegiances to friends and family in the village at a time of mounting resentment toward British rule. But the film – beautiful to look at – doesn't keep its focus on T.K., leaving audiences to turn to the reckless, arrogant Henry, and to try to care.