As a child growing up in the backwaters of Kerala, India, Santosh Sivan recalls trekking up the narrow, winding roads that had been cut into the mountain jungle. "I used to ask my father, 'Who made the road like this and how did they do it?' He would tell me about the prayers that had been performed along the way, the ghost stories, the tribal culture that ruled the place."
Fast forward a few decades and in Sivan's English-language directorial debut, "Before the Rains," a twisted, roughly hewn road is almost a character unto itself.
Known primarily for his cinematography skills, Sivan has created a lush, culturally rich film. Sivan, who splits his time between Mumbai and Chennai (formerly Madras), most recently lent his cinematography skills to Gurinder Chadha's "Bride & Prejudice" in 2004 and, the following year, in Paul Mayeda Berges' "The Mistress of Spices," based on the book by Chitra Divakaruni.
But with "Before the Rains," Sivan went for a darker subject matter, one still heaving with the culture and rituals of India. The movie, which is mostly in English with some dialogue in the Malayalam dialect, is set in 1937 Kerala, a state on the Malabar coast of southwestern India and one known for its lush, natural beauty.
The story takes place in Munnar, a picturesque mountain region more than 5,200 feet above sea level that is famous for its vast tea plantations and a landscape that allowed Sivan use of his signature shots of sweeping vistas.
"Munnar is where the regions of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu meet," Sivan said. "The British who went up there to live [in colonial times] chose it because it was similar, weather-wise, to England."
Against this backdrop plays out the story of a scandalous cross-cultural love affair whose incendiary nature is fanned further by a growing anti-British sentiment. British actor Linus Roache ("The Namesake," "Law & Order") plays Moores, an ambitious entrepreneur who plans to build a road through the mountain that will eventually be used to carry tea and spices. But while his wife (Jennifer Ehle) is away in England with their son, he begins an affair with the local housemaid Sajani (Nandita Das). Moores' right-hand man, T.K. (Rahul Bose), is caught in the crossfire when the ultra-orthodox village leaders hear of the transgression.
"It's a story that could have happened anywhere, in any time," Sivan said. The movie is based somewhat on a short called "Red Roofs," which is part of the Israeli film "The Desert Trilogy: Yellow Asphalt."
The script, written by the late Cathy Rabin, is filled with insights into the traditions and beliefs of the ultra-orthodox villagers of 1930s Kerala.
That every person turns into a dragonfly at death, how people would undergo "trial by fire" in criminal cases, having to lick a fire-hot spoon, walk on coals or stick their hands into a vat of snakes to determine if they were telling the truth. Those details enabled Sivan to use his eye for cinematography to great effect.
"Since I deal in a visual language, it was interesting for me to see the film as a director, because I knew what I wanted to show it as. For me, directing is just an extension of being a cinematographer."
Sivan also wanted to take advantage of the fact that he is a native of Kerala, happy to work in a part of the state that has remained largely unchanged for five decades, and exploring the possibilities of life there 70 years ago.
"I knew we could do a lot of layering of the story in terms of the metaphors," Sivan said. "The whole idea of a road going through a jungle represents an intrusion, of displacement. And we called it 'Before the Rains' because there is the smell of change coming. And it just so happens to the man and the country at the same time."