Name a great painting about rain. Scan the history of classical, renaissance, or modern art and you’ll find very few important examples. Wind, yes. Sunshine, of course. And fog (Oscar Wilde’s quip: London was not foggy until Whistler), but not rain. We get its aftermath, wet streets and biblical floods, but seldom have painters looked at rain in the present tense, as a visual moment.
In painting, rain is very hard to do. In cinema, rain is another matter. The title scene of the MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain, where Gene Kelly dances in a downpour shot on a studio set, is one of the most kinetic in movie history. The camera swoops, the dancer runs, jumps and spins, and the image itself flickers with the reflections of the studio lights in the pools of dappled water. It’s absurd in a Hollywood way because getting drenched is seldom much fun, but classical cinema has always structured its feelings in a utopian way, stripping out the unpleasant parts of real life and building in safety and forgetfulness.
This applies even more to mainstream Hindi cinema. Seldom in Bollywood is a good soaking anything other than exhilarating or symbolically erotic. Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding climaxed with a cathartic cloudburst in New Delhi. Dil, the biggest Hindi film of 1990, a kind of Grease remake, had a splendid one too, as did 1983’s Betaab, where the lovers duet in a glass cabin during a shower. The rain song, as it came to be known in the biggest film industry in the world, has become a narrative structural device, like the action sequence in Hollywood.
The optimism and manageability of mainstream movie rain is thanks in part to the cinematographer’s best friend, the rain machine. For years in American musicals, a shower would be turned on like a tap and would soak the stars fetchingly, while the rest of the street stayed dry. The shower that soaks John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) was a rugged spin on this; it made her hair straggly and sexy and showed his physique beneath his shirt. But rain-machine rain started to look very false by the late 1950s, when more films were shot on location. It took the British director Terence Davies to turn things exquisitely full circle in his Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), where, as the doors…