The level of anger running through “The Damned Rain” bursts past its early seriocomic tone, packing a wallop by pic’s end sure to leave auds duly moved. Satish Manwar, himself from farming stock, looks at a village devastated by the epidemic of farmer suicides currently gripping India, crafting a very human tale whose surprisingly mature screenplay and striking lensing belie the helmer-scripter’s novice stature. Winner of the best Marathi feature at January’s Pune Film Festival, this powerful tale is a natural for offshore fests wanting to expose auds to the diversity of subcontinental cinema.
From the opener, featuring a crane shot moving from women in the fields to a view of the parched landscape to a hanged farmer, it’s clear Manwar and d.p. Sudheer Palsane (“The Clay Bird,” “Wild Bull”) have a cinematic and narrative confidence whose understatement still allows for plenty of emotion.
When Alka (Sonali Kulkarni) hears of her neighbor’s suicide, she fears for her own husband Kisna (Girish Kulkarni), who’s barely eking out a living thanks to drought conditions and profiteering traders. She enlists young son Dinu (Aman Attar) and her mother-in-law (Jyoti Subhash) to watch Kisna’s every waking moment for signs that he’ll kill himself, yielding several comical moments that may feel off-kilter to Western auds but are expected at home.
When their debts continue to pile up and they are left with no means of buying cotton seed, Alka has Kisna pawn her jewelry, and he sows his seven acres with renewed optimism. But when the rains are delayed by weeks and the seedlings are ruined, they are forced to sell the jewels outright, hoping the vital precipitation will come.
Interpolated into this focused story are ramifications from the earlier suicide; Manwar’s deep cynicism in regard to the government’s handling of such cases comes through loud and clear.
Though he doesn’t completely dispense with traditional narrative elements, such as the comical mother-in-law, Manwar upends the frivolity by giving her a speech about a lifetime that’s witnessed a slow trajectory downward — it’s not long, but it cinches her character and places the family’s crisis in context.
These aren’t peasants: Each comes from a respectable farming family, suffering from environmental disasters and government inaction. By casually including brief shots of other suicides in the village, pic makes clear the monumental scale of the problem.
Manwar’s excellent script skillfully introduces each character, and thesps are uniformly strong. Widescreen visuals move from village to parched land with a keen understanding of the human dependence on nature, full of hope one moment only to be crushed the next.