Visually stunning and anthropologically fascinating, it’s easy to see why filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson’s documentary look at India’s fabled rainy season, Monsoon, took the Audience Choice Award during TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten last month. It’s occasionally problematic and not everything Gunnarsson is attempting sticks, but there’s no denying the visual and aural punch being packed. It’s certainly a big screen experience and not something to be watched at home if you’re inclined to go see it.
Often starting at the beginning of June, India’s monsoon season is a big deal in a lot of ways. It can stop droughts in some locations of the country. It can cause massive economic booms if the rains come to the right areas. It can cause devastating flooding. It can be seen as a time of spiritual and romantic awakening. It’s significant to every aspect of Indian culture.
Gunnarson traverses the subcontinent in a single season – predominantly stopping in coastal cities – to track the stormy weather and the stories of the people it affects. The filmmaker stops to speak to meteorologists, bureaucrats, famers, everyday families, former Bollywood starlets, and even a bookie who takes bets on whether it will rain on any given day to give a picture of the storm as a macrocosm of Indian life at a certain point each year.
It’s an immersive experience, and it’s nice to see Gunnarsson return to the kind of filmmaking that made him an award winner when he first started his career. Hand in hand with cinematographer Van Royko, Gunnarsson captures indelible images before the storm even starts. It’s poetic and sometimes dangerous filmmaking that deserves to be commended. It effectively captures the joy and hardship that the monsoon can bring, and it doesn’t need much embellishment.
But that’s also the main problem with Monsoon as a whole. There’s too much embellishment from Gunnarsson. I’m sure he means to add a bit more ethereal subtext to his travels, but too often the spiritual philosophizing contained in his voiceover (and sometimes, and for different reasons, in awkward interviews) feels like the film starts to stray too far from what makes the subject important and intriguing. It’s thoughtful enough as it is, and it doesn’t need much more than that.