I had to hunt down where this film was playing – it was 70 miles away and I took a road trip to go catch it. The reviews have been so good, it is made by Sivan, has Nandita Das AND Rahul Bose so it seemed well worth the effort. Unfortunately I feel really let down by the film. It seems specifically made to cater to a Western audience and is less Indian than Darjeeling Limited! Sivan tells an engaging enough tale that the 90+ minutes do not hang heavy on your hands but the characters are not well etched at all. I went in expecting an Indian Ink (Stoppard) or a Passage to India (EM Forster), at the very least I was hoping for a Heat and Dust, but this is lower than that Ruth Praver Jhabvala fare.
Nandita Das plays Sajani, a woman who works as maidservant to the Moores family headed by Linus Roache as Henry Moores. While the wife (Jennifer Ehle) and son are away, Henry gets into an adulterous love affair with Sajani. With the help of TK, a local village man who is English educated, Henry is trying to build a road to improve the spice trade. Sajani is married to a brutish fellow, he does find out and all hell breaks loose. There is the obligatory tragic ending but you watch it from the outside with clinical detachment. The white man is a spineless fellow, the white woman a large hearted up-standing woman (like the white women in Lagaan, RDB).
Nandita Das has a meaningless role that she cannot sink her teeth into, Rahul Bose is equally wasted in the role of a man who is neither fish nor fowl, but caught between two cultures. So much could have been made of this character. Linus Roach plays the gutless white man exceedingly well, you hate him and yet you also know where he is coming from. Jennifer Ehle is wonderful in a small role as the woman full of empathy.
What Sivan does best is showcase the canvas, the photography is absolutely stunning. The locales are full of magic and every shimmering dew drop, the frog jumping into the pond, the mist rising from the tree tops, is all magically captured by his lens. Where he loses out is in etching the characters better, and having more to the story itself. This is a thin tale. He also fails at extracting the best from his stellar cast. Western audiences will love this tale of “forbidden love” – parts of it more graphically shown than we are used to seeing, the spineless British man, the Indian man learning the gentleman’s game from the gentleman Henry, and in fact out-gentlemaning Henry in the end. I am sure they will also find most interesting some of the bizarre and arcane rituals that the “tribals’ were practicing! I am disappointed because this one could have been so much more.