‘Monsoon’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
A fascinating weather film somewhere between a disaster movie and a humble salute to the soul of India

Open your umbrellas for the grandeur and destruction of the monsoon as it sweeps across India

From “not much rain expected this year” to a record downpour that washes away his protagonists’ home in Kerala, prolific Canadian documaker Sturla Gunnarsson demonstrates the power of weather to surprise even the meteorologists and change lives. Monsoon is a film that was waiting to be made: a great subject, a vast scale (all over India), dramatic cinematography and even a bit of humor regarding the timid weather bureaucracy and a henna-haired odds-maker who bets on the rain. Gunnarsson’s style is formal and classic, with no frills beyond the inclusion of his own off-screen voice drawling questions. Some of the cinematography is epic and the package is sure to draw the attention of weather watchers as well as India and travel lovers on its limited theatrical run, followed by more substantial ancillary for KinoSmith.

The 2013 monsoon wasn’t supposed to be any great shakes, according to the predictions, and indeed, in some spots it barely touched down. Farming is based on the monsoon rains, and drought-stricken Maharashtra received no bounty for the third straight year, creating a region-wide emergency. But chasing the annual perfect storm across the subcontinent, Gunnarsson and his small crew get soaking wet in Mumbai and Kolkata, offering them a good excuse to insert a delightful rain song from the early Amitabh Bachchan movie Manzil to illustrate the “wet sari” fad. In another amusing episode, the eccentric bookie Bishnu Shastri is tracked as he makes seemingly infallible bets on when it will rain. Meanwhile, Indian bureaucrats and meteorologists are well aware the country’s whole economy depends on what the monsoon does, and they cagily hedge their bets lest they rattle the stock market with a badly-timed declaration of landfall.

In this slippery water world, the most sure-footed narrative revolves around Akhila Prasad, a 12-year-old schoolgirl from coastal Kerala in the south, whose family home is destroyed when a canal overflows its banks. Beautifully filmed by D.P. Van Royko in variations on tropical green, her drama brings home the unpredictable dangers and heartbreak of the season.

Time and again Gunnarsson says that he is not a believer, but is struck by the faith in God shown by Indians of all walks of life as the storm approaches. This creates a gap that keeps him at a distance from the larger underlying meaning suggested by the awe-inspiring vistas, and it feels a little disappointing that the foreign filmmaker can’t bridge it. The closest the film comes is in Royko’s primordial shots of thunderheads moving like gods over the tops of the Himalayas, covering mountaintops like a rushing tsunami. This is the state of Meghalaya, a.k.a. the rainiest spot in the world, “where the clouds come to die” and the monsoon ends in breathtaking brown waterfalls. The use of ultra-high definition 4K and computer time-lapse photography pays off here in unforgettable sights.

A natural complement is composer Andrew T. Mackay’s score, based on authentic Raga Malhar music associated with the monsoon, and performed by his own electronic Bombay Dub Orchestra.

Production companies: Intuitive Pictures, Point du Jour, Monsoon Ontario in association with Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Arte France
Director-Screenwriter: Sturla Gunnarsson
Producers: Ina Fichman, Sturla Gunnarsson
Executive producers: Ina Fichman, Luc Martin-Gousset
Director of photography: Van Royko
Editor: Nick Hector
Music: Andrew T. Mackay
Sales: KinoSmith

No rating, 106 minutes