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Power reigns in 'Rains'

Fatal culture clash, imperialist entitlement, forbidden passion between master and servant: the ingredients of the Indian director Santosh Sivan's period piece "Before the Rains" may be awfully familiar, but the film lends them the force of tragedy. From the moment Moores (Linus Roache), an arrogant British planter in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, hands a gun to his loyal manservant T.K. (Rahul Bose), you can be certain that the weapon will be discharged and lives destroyed.

Moores has a grand scheme to build a road into the jungle, the better to transport spices for export, but it must be completed before the monsoon season. Some of the most visually striking scenes in the lavish, beautifully photographed film, which was made on location in Kerala, show a virtual army of laborers from the nearby village hacking down trees and digging the road. It isn't quite slave labor, but almost.

"Before the Rains" is adapted from "Red Roofs," the longest of three unrelated stories in the Israeli director Dany Verete's 2002 film, "Yellow Asphalt," which explored the collision of modern customs and tribal traditions in contemporary Israel. In that movie a wealthy Jewish farmer who has an affair with his Bedouin housekeeper forces his assistant, a Bedouin tribesman, to initiate drastic damage control once the relationship is detected. With a screenplay by Cathy Rabin, "Before the Rains" has been to moved to colonial India in 1937. The transition from one culture to another is seamless.

Moores, played by Roache with a cunning charm that masks an authoritarian severity, is carrying on a passionate affair with his housekeeper Sajani (Nandita Das), a beautiful, naive woman who commutes from the village to work at his nearby ranch. One afternoon they are accidentally spied making love at a waterfall by two young boys from the village, who report seeing Sajani with an unidentified man.

When her husband, Rajat (Lal Paul), interrogates her, Sajani's evasive replies drive him into a fury and he savagely beats her, which under tribal law is within his rights. Since Moores' wife, Laura (Jennifer Ehle), has recently arrived from England with their son Peter (Leopold Benedict), Sajani has already become someone to be kept hidden, although Moores still swears he loves her.

But when Sajani shows up wounded at his door in the middle of the night, he insists she leave as soon as possible. The next day he hands her money and entrusts her to T.K., who is ordered to make sure that she leaves. Before departing, she asks Moores one last time if he loves her, and after a pause, he coldly answers no.

"Before the Rains" doesn't dawdle in sentimentality. As much as you sympathize with Sajani's hopeless plight -- she is a pariah with nowhere to go -- the film is a dispassionate study of how power, when threatened, ruthlessly exercises its prerogatives. For as long as he can get away with it, Moores lies to his wife about the reasons for the escalating turmoil. Nowadays it's called stonewalling.

The movie's most compelling figure is the unfailingly loyal T.K., who is instructed to violate native customs in a desperate cover-up. A stoical, taciturn man who loves his boss too much, he is a lost soul who has foolishly imagined he could keep one foot in the tribal world and the other in the modern.

But for all his ability at navigating between the two, T.K. is as naive in his way as Sajani. The movie is too sophisticated to make Moores an evil caricature. He is simply the embodiment of the kind of power that when endangered reveals its true nature.

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