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The best piece of news in recent weeks is the weather report about the arrival of the monsoon in Kerala. The rains are hopefully quickly climbing up the map to cities like Mumbai to replace the rivers of sweat flowing off people’s faces in what has been an unusually cruel summer. It is time for restaurants to kick off chai-and-pakoda festivals, news reporters to give piece-to-camera updates from inside knee-deep water, and radio and television stations to put monsoon-themed movie songs on a loop. Welcome back, Tip Tip Barsa Paani.

Curtains of water will momentarily conceal Mumbai’s widespread ugliness, and every resident of the overwhelmed metropolis will relax just a bit for a few weeks. To know what Mumbai used to look like before municipal councillors, state government officials and builders mauled it beyond recognition, see the female version of the song Rimjhim Gire Sawan from Basu Chatterjee’s Manzil (1979). Amitabh Bachchan and Moushumi Chatterjee walk along the iconic Marine Drive promenade and splash about in Oval Maidan, the city at their disposal—as it feels when you are young and in love—and the weather in perfect tune with their emotions.

The rains are a staple of Hindi movies through songs and scenes for obvious reasons. Rain signifies hope, renewal, the washing away of inhibition. For the less lofty-minded, a rain song is an excuse to get a woman into a wet sari, our equivalent of MTV Grind. Smita Patil’s I-wish-I-were-in-Timbuktu-instead expression in the Aaj Rapat song from Namak Halaal is an aberration to the rule that the monsoon is the best season for romance (Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua Hai from Shree 420; Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Saawan Barse Tarse Dil from Dahek ); Tu Hi Re from Bombay).

Bombay’s director, Mani Ratnam, can’t make a movie without including a shower from the heavens or a splash in some kind of water body. His best rain song is Oho Megham Vanthatho from his breakthrough Tamil film Mouna Ragam (1986), in which Revathi’s character throws all caution to the wind and prances all over Chennai, even as the man who will eventually be her husband patiently waits for her at home.

Ratnam is a self-declared fan of the master of the seasons, Akira Kurosawa. The Japanese film-maker is a climate expert who has used the weather beautifully in his cinema—the winter in The Idiot and rain in nearly every film, especially Rashomon. Kurosawa’s richly atmospheric police procedural Stray Dog (1949) unfolds during a scorching summer in a city that is literally at boiling point. During a heat wave in post-war Tokyo, a cop hunts high and low for his misplaced gun, his journey taking him into the innards of the underbelly. Hand fans whirr away, handkerchieves travel over brows, shirts are left unbuttoned and watermelons and ice lollies are consumed as Murakami, played by Kurosawa’s favourite actor Toshiro Mifune, tracks down his weapon, which has been used in a murder. The sweat of Murakami’s labour is literal and symbolic. Tokyo is depicted as an overheated, unpleasant and deeply unequal place, where the system has failed its people and it’s left to individuals to stay on the right moral course.

The heat gets another literal-symbolic spin in Lawrence Kasdan’s taut and sexy debut Body Heat (1981), a neo-noir dipped in sweat and other indescribable bodily fluids. Starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, Body Heat references classics like Double Indemnity and Farewell, My Lovely as well as Roman Polanski’s neo-noir Chinatown (1974). Set in a city in Florida that is experiencing a heat wave similar to the one in Stray Dog, Body Heat is about small-time lawyer Ned Racine, who is the only person unable to spot the “I Am Trouble" sign stamped on wealthy housewife Matty Walker’s ice-cool forehead. There’s more to the movie than Turner’s traffic-stopping red skirt and Hurt’s open-mouthed lust. Kasdan expertly weaves a web of small-time passion and betrayal and creates other memorable characters, especially Ted Danson’s pirouetting lawyer, that balance out Ned’s self-willed paralysis and Matty’s unbridled greed. A movie about the heat within and without, Body Heat’s most direct descendant is Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, another neo-noir about wicked women, panting men, and mischievous mercury levels.

This fortnightly series looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.

Also Read | Nandini’s previous columns

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