Visually fussy to a fault, “Monsoon” applies a near-“Baraka”-level degree of New Age-y pictorialism to its titular subject. We learn superficially about the vast importance of this annual weather phenomenon to India’s people, agriculture and economy, but helmer Sturla Gunnarsson seems far more interested in overstudied imagery that would make for a great coffee-table book, yet feels like a triumph of hollow aestheticism over content onscreen. Nonetheless, that armchair-tourist surface spectacle might push the pic (shot in the extra-high-def 4K format) into the commercial theatrical sphere, attracting the same audiences who’ve glimpsed profundity in the photo-of-the-year compilations crafted by Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke.
Considered “the soul of India,” monsoon season provides the majority of that vast nation’s drinking and farming water. (A minority comes from mountain snow melt.) But while the rain may fall anywhere throughout the subcontinent, it can’t be counted on to fall anywhere in particular — we meet people at a refugee camp who’ve been forced to relocate themselves and their livestock from areas facing a ruinous fourth straight year of drought. Too much rain can also be harmful: Gunnarsson’s favorite interviewee here, 12-year-old Akhila, lives with her family below sea level in the southern state Kerala. When the year brings record rainfall, subsequent flooding is a disaster for their entire village.
We also visit fishermen for whom the storms can greatly increase haul but also endanger their lives. Taking a different kind of risk on monsoon quirks is Bishnu Shastri, a colorful Calcutta bookie who accepts bets on where, when and how much rain will fall. A visit to a wildlife preserve reveals that for hippopotami and other endangered species, the season is dangerous as well. When waters rise, they tend to flee to less-protected, higher-ground areas where poachers await, drawn by the outrageous prices copped by such rare items as rhino-horn powder (an alleged aphrodisiac).
Gunnarsson observes government meteorologists and others charged with predicting the weather as best instinct and science can manage — a premature or false prediction can roil the stock market and cost jobs. On a more frivolous note, film star Moushumi Chatterjee, who starred in the 1971 hit “Manzil,” swans about discussing the romantic role that monsoons often play in Indian pop culture.
Some of this is interesting and informative, some just anecdotal people watching, with little interest in the brass tacks of individual survival. Though “Monsoon” is clearly a labor of love, particularly compared to Gunnarsson’s crowded TV-series resume, helmer’s fondness for his subjects can seem faintly condescending. He frequently poses them artificially for the camera and seems oblivious when a few (such as Akhila’s family) appear to be constantly wearing their fanciest dress for the camera’s scrutiny, as if assuming they must always look this adorable.
The resulting “Look at the simple people, so close to nature!” air would be easier to take if the pic weren’t so relentlessly picturesque, d.p. Van Royko’s every other shot being some sort of sunset-backlit or lyrically slo-mo rhapsody. Apparently actual monsoon conditions weren’t ideal for capturing such magic moments, since the documentary spends a great deal of time anticipating the storms, then viewing their aftermath, but very little actually observing them in progress.
Packaging is high-grade, and there’s an all-too-predictable original soundtrack of worldbeat dance music to accompany all the pretty pictures. Interviews are primarily in English, with translators rather than subtitles used when a non-English-speaker is heard from.