Before the Rains

Starring Linus Roache and Rahul Bose. In English and Malayalam with English subtitles. Rated PG. Opens Friday, July 11, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas

Shot in India’s lush Kerala state, Before the Rains is such a solid example of old-fashioned storytelling that it should surprise no one to find the name Merchant Ivory Productions attached.

Here, the venerable Anglo-Indian production company takes another look at the waning days of the British empire, and if few major new insights are gained, it is at least an occasion for some thought-provoking acting. Linus Roache plays Henry Moores, a dapper plantation owner progressive enough to recognize that his growing tea-and-spice business could easily outlast independence, should that day ever come.

Henry’s views of the native population are also rather, um, advanced, in that he’s totally nuts about his housekeeper, Sajani, a village beauty played by Nandita Das. Of course, the fact that Sajani is already married, and so is the sahib, does present something of a problem, especially for Henry’s assistant and alleged friend, T. K. Neelan, played by the excellent Rahul Bose.

An educated fellow with aspirations to move up in the empire, T. K. is torn when his fellow villagers start telling the Brits to go home. When locals get wind of his boss’s affair with the help, he’s in an even trickier position. As far as getting a work crew to finish a new mountain road on the plantation before the annual monsoon—hence the title—well, you can imagine how that might go.

Little here is unpredictable, but the film is full of deft touches, courtesy of director Santosh Sivan (who also made Theeviravaathi: The Terrorist). When Henry’s English wife shows up, for example, she is a fine, loving person, not the shrewish colonial you’re expecting to meet. (The fact that she’s played by the too-rarely seen Jennifer Ehle helps.) And one long scene in which T. K. is sorely tested by a tribal council offers a harrowing twist in a tale that turns out to be tougher than it looks.

See also: Before the Rains' Linus Roache has made many a passage to India