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Kerala stars in Santosh Sivan's English debut

  • Story Highlights
  • "Before the Rains" is Indian director Santosh Sivan's English-language debut
  • A tragic love story set in 1930s Kerala in the endless twilight of the Empire
  • The film captures India's natural beauty breathtakingly
  • Stars Linus Roach, Jennifer Ehle, Rahul Bose and Nandita Das
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By CNN's Mairi Mackay
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- To download footage of Santosh Sivan talking about "Before the Rains" on The Screening Room podcast subscribe here.

It is roads, of all things, that Indian director Santosh Sivan cites as the inspiration behind his exquisite English-language debut "Before the Rains."

Director-cinematographer Santosh Sivan on the set of "Before the Rains"

"As a kid I used to travel to all these fantastic hills which had all the spices and there used to be these beautiful curving roads going deep into the jungles," he remembers.

In "Before the Rains" Sivan has managed to conjure up the Kerala of his childhood recollections -- and there can be few films that evoke India's natural beauty more breathtakingly.

"I got to know that these [roads] were made by the British people and it always interested me how British people must have interacted with my forefathers because we never had a chance to interact with them," Sivan continues. Watch a clip of Santosh Sivan talking to CNN about "Before the Rains."

It is in the dying days of the Empire among the colonialists of the 1930s -- the ambitious men who hacked paths through the Keralan jungle to their fortunes in the spice plantations -- that Sivan sets his tale of passion and nationalism.

English spice baron Henry Moores (Linus Roach) and faithful aide T.K. (Rahul Bose) are racing to finish the road to his cardamom and clove plantation before the torrential rains of the monsoon hit.

Complicating matters is Moore's affair with a village woman (Nandita Das) which ignites colonial tensions and pushes T.K. -- a man caught between two cultures -- to the limits of his allegiance.

The film's original premise comes from a short film set in Israel called "Red Roofs" by little-known writer-director Dany Verete. It concerns the affair between an Israeli and his housemaid, the Bedouin assistant who is forced to deal with it and the tragic outcome.

Sivan liked the idea but not the setting: "We discussed the possibility of maybe making it into a feature film and setting it in a colonial kind of past in India." Sivan and screenwriter Cathy Rabin then set about transforming the basic story into a 'hothouse of lust, empire and guilt.'

It comes as no great surprise that the film is presented by Merchant Ivory, the production company famous for beautifully-crafted period dramas like "A Room with a View" and "Howard's End."

But the inevitable comparison is with "A Passage to India," Merchant Ivory's arid and frightfully pukka evocation of 1920s colonial India.

Both films deal with some of the syndromes characterized in the days of the Raj -- the Indian who thinks he is equal with the Englishman only to discover he is not and the ways in which India was both subjugated by the Empire and able to use the lessons of its rule to gain independence.

David Lean's Oscar-winning film is probably more successful at dealing with the political issues and some critics have said it is a more accomplished film.

In a review, The Hollywood Reporter said "Before the Rains" was: "Lacking the emotional power necessary to fuel its contrived plot elements, the film is a minor entry in the Merchant Ivory canon."

In his film's defence, Sivan says: "I thought the film had a very universal appeal because it is what happens in a place like New York or any metropolitan place where people from different cultures are together."

"Each culture is very curious about the other... it makes them attracted to each other and then you find all these other problems that each culture has of its own, so the film also resonates in that way."

But to anyone who remembers the dust and parched mountains of "A Passage" the awe-inspiring beauty of the landscapes rendered by Sivan will seem like another country. They are the film's great achievement.

"The visual language, the camera as such and the way you do things has such a fantastic universal appeal. So, I think the visual language is the film," he says of the attention lavished on the film's imagery.

Sivan who played the role of both director and director of photography on "Before the Rains" started his film career as a cinematographer and has credits on 45 films. He has received India's national award for best cinematographer five times.

"Before the Rains" is Sivan's eighth film as a director -- he has since directed "Tahaan: A Boy with a Grenade" a Hindi-language terrorism drama which premiered at Cannes this year -- an indication of the Indian expatriate community's growing appetite for films that deal with controversial or sexual themes without falling back on musical dance routines.

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A household name in India, international acclaim came in 1998 when "The Terrorist," Sivan's ultra-low budget Tamil-language thriller about a girl suicide bomber won the Best Director, Best Actress Awards and the Golden Pyramid Award at the Cairo International Film festival.

John Malkovich, the actor known for roles in "Dangerous Liaisons" and "Being John Malkovich," was a member of the Cairo jury that gave Sivan the top award.

During the director's last trip to the U.S. -- to promote "Before the Rains" at the Tribeca film festival in New York -- Malkovich asked Sivan to direct him in the screen adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning author J M Coetzee's 1980 masterpiece "Waiting for the Barbarians."

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"I met him and we had a long chat and he offered me a new film and it was a great meeting," says Sivan, although he does not confirm if will take Malkovich up on his offer.

Whatever he decides, it is likely international audiences will be hearing a lot more of this Keralan director with an eye for a beautiful shot, even if he remains superstitious about success: "I think sometimes it is just plain lucky," he shrugs.

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