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Sturla Gunnarsson's documentary 'Monsoon' a 'love letter to India'

A young boy is pictured in an an undated handout still from Sturla Gunnarsson’s film “Monsoon.” Sturla Gunnarsson's documentary "Monsoon" is his "love letter to India" and a return to the vast and bustling country for the prolific Canadian filmmaker. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO, VKPR

TORONTO – Sturla Gunnarsson’s documentary “Monsoon” is his “love letter to India” and a return to the vast and bustling country for the prolific Canadian filmmaker.

The film about how the immense weather system affects India’s one billion residents is premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, with screenings on Sept. 7 and 9.

“Some people say that the monsoon is the soul of India,” said Gunnarsson in a recent interview. “It’s a massive weather system that governs the conditions of existence for all.

“It’s a subject of ritual and prayer and study and science. It’s as close to God as a non-believer like myself is ever going to get.”

Gunnarsson, born in Reykjavik, Iceland and raised in Vancouver, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1983 for his documentary “After the Axe.” His film about David Suzuki, “Force of Nature,” won the 2010 documentary audience award at the Toronto festival.

Also known for directing the “Beowulf and Grendel,” which starred Gerard Butler, Gunnarsson’s work spans a broad range of genres. He has travelled India extensively and his last feature set in the sprawling land was his award-winning adaptation of Rohinton Mistry’s “Such a Long Journey.”

The 63-year-old director said he had always been fascinated by the idea of the monsoon. When producer Ina Fichman of Intuitive Pictures offered him an opportunity to make a film about the annual rainfall, he couldn’t refuse.

So in May 2013, just a few weeks before the start of monsoon season, he and a small documentary crew began filming. They chased the storm across the Indian sub-continent, from the moment it made landfall in the coastal area of Kerala to the teeming cities of Mumbai and Kolkata, before reaching the world’s rainiest place in the state of Meghalaya, also known as the “Place of The Clouds.”

“I met a lot of people along the way,” Gunnarsson said. “We have a physicist and a philosopher, a bureaucrat and a bookie. We have a beautiful 12-year-old girl. We’ve got Amitabh Bachchan doing a song-and-dance number and we have the Bombay Dub Orchestra doing music.

The characters in the documentary are all connected to the monsoon in different ways: bookie Bishnu Shastri, for example, never loses a weather bet. The family of the 12-year-old girl, Akhila Prasad, risks losing everything in the annual rainfall, while a group of farmers are desperate for the monsoon to pass over their land.

“Monsoon” marks Gunnarsson’s seventh film at the festival. He chose to shoot the film in ultra-high definition 4K and to use computer-controlled time-lapse photography to capture the storm’s scale. The filmmaker said shooting during extreme weather was challenging but ultimately worthwhile.

“Every day is a surprise in India,” he said. “You wake up in the morning and whatever it is you thought you were doing isn’t what you’re doing and you roll with it. It’s a country of surprise and delight.”

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off Thursday and runs until Sept. 14.