FOCUS: An Indian Indie

From dodging debt to clearing censorship, SOUL OF SAND director, Sidharth Srinivasan, discusses the genesis of a film fueled by “passion, persistence, patience–and pig headedness!”

(Image courtesy of Sidharth Srinivasan)

It’s been three achingly long years from script to screen. We shot PAIRON TALLE (SOUL OF SAND) as an utter indie, sans any form of corporate funding let alone guarantee of completion, on love, not-so-fresh air and foolhardiness, in the fall of 2008. To embark on such a venture one has to contend with a veritable host of naysayers—aghast outsiders, concerned family members and frowning well-wishers, and during pre-production I could almost smell the cast and crew clandestinely questioning the folly of my endeavors behind my back, but supporting me nonetheless for my very personal Waterloo (bless their souls). I say stick to your guns if the project has stuck with you for as long as it has—independent filmmaking is the exclusive domain of masochists who revel in the pleasure/pain principle…

Once principal photography began in earnest everyone was disbelievingly stunned into action, as it were, and spirits ran alarmingly high – the joy of a successful shoot is akin to chasing that ubiquitous dragon. But the low that came post-shooting hit like a ton of bricks – case in point, our film was in the proverbial can but we were over-budget (despite having completed well before schedule thanks to an amazing DoP by the name of Nalla Muthu), money was owed all over the joint, and we didn’t have a clue as to how to finish the film – the realization sank in that I was in this up to my scruffy indie neck (please bear in mind here that in India film equipment and services cannot be paid for by credit card overdrafts)! Wallowing in the thick of this slough of despond, providence intervened in the shape of the Hubert Bals Fund, who selected PAIRON TALLE for Digital Production Funding, enabling me to clear all debts and plunge in to the post-production of my film with renewed gusto.

Needless to add, we ran out of funds yet again, having to contend with an endless edit that involved imparting cinematic sense to over 30 hours of amorphous footage, let alone completion of sound design and grading. One year went by, life-saving deals were made and fell through, I found myself returning to the edit studio like a binging barfly convinced he could make it work, and long-gestating plans that read well on paper did not translate into reality – it was a tough haul. In the midst of all this mayhem, thanks to NFDC, we got selected to the Work-in-Progress Lab at the Film Bazaar. The interest in the rough cut was overwhelming and the response of the mentors at the Lab reaffirmed our conviction in the project. It was here also, that I first met Santhosh Daniel, Program Director of the GFI.

We returned to the drawing board, push came to shove, impressed by our vision and the response thus far, a few investors literally materialized out of thin air and we managed to complete the film somehow. Now what?

Sidharth Srinivasan (right) with Cameron Bailey, Co-Director of TIFF (Image courtesy Sidharth Srinivasan)

Cameron Bailey, Co-Director of TIFF saw and loved the film and PAIRON TALLE finally had its world premiere at TIFF 2010. He selected the film as one of his “Daily Picks” and wrote an amazing Programmer’s Note that truly left me misty-eyed and very, very humbled: “Srinisivan makes a bold break with traditional Indian art cinema here. Although the film shows some influence both from Ingmar Bergman and the socially engaged tales of Satyajit Ray and Guru Dutt, Soul of Sand feels much more contemporary. The precise digital cinematography and symmetrical compositions give it an aspect of gallery work, while the shades of electronic music mixed with Western classical instrumentation pull the film right into the present. This is a film of extraordinarily striking aesthetics. And yet, as structured and disciplined as it is, Soul of Sand is also a sharp cry for social change. Moved by a wave of honour killings among rural dwellers living outside of Delhi, Srinivasan crafts his film to reveal what happens when an oppressed man turns for the first time against his oppressor. Clearly schooled in the best of world cinema – he has cited filmmakers from Bunuel to Oshima to Tobe Hooper as influences – this young auteur has found a way to make films in India that feel urgent, relevant, artful and new”.

Toronto was awesome, the audiences enthusiastic and friendly, but the market was an altogether different beast. That elusive, all-important North American sale was slipping away – a distant dream perhaps – our labour of love relegated to being just another festival film…

During TIFF, I received a mail from Santhosh requesting me for the screener. I was pleasantly surprised that he remembered my film, despite meeting only once, nearly a year ago. Having already shot off the Screener far and wide to sales agents and coming up blank I was pessimistic – was it not common market wisdom that distributors like the GFI do business exclusively with sales agents, rarely with unheard-of independent filmmakers?

Srinivasan at the Global Lens 2011 premiere, Museum of Modern Art

We returned to India, extremely happy with the audience response to PAIRON TALLE at TIFF, but a tad dejected at having been at sea in the market. I kept writing back to check in with Santhosh – fearing the worst but wanting to get the bad news out of my way. Rotterdam beckoned for the European premiere – perhaps something would click there? And then, out of the blue, Santhosh wrote me a rather cryptic mail stating that as of that afternoon my wishes had been granted! To have someone represent the film across platforms in USA and Canada, to have the U.S. premiere of PAIRON TALLE at MoMA in New York and to get a Minimum Gaurantee to boot – life was most certainly taking a turn for the better.

That the GFI acquired PAIRON TALLE for Global Lens 2011 was remarkable in itself, but that they champion the kind of cinema they do, in the manner they do – is truly commendable. Independent filmmaking need not be devoid of market reality, as long as bodies such as the GFI exist, willing to take extreme chances on subtitled films from developing countries, for the notoriously competitive American market – the biggest and toughest market in the world to gain a foothold. And yet a very small film from India managed this thanks to some seriously far-thinking folks who felt the need to shake things up a little, and also – I’d like to think – thanks to being a rather singular outing from the subcontinent…

Another amazing TIFF has taken place, the Indian indie scene is exploding thanks to the likes of NFDC and some very passionate filmmakers, and PAIRON TALLE has finally been issued a censor certificate! Suffice it to say that the Indian censor board was very impressed by my film, despite its graphic content, and informed me that the Indian audience needs to see it, passing the film without any cuts.

So here I am, another mountain to climb, another extra mile all for a good cause, running on empty but fueled by passion, persistence and patience (and pig-headedness!) in an effort to secure domestic distribution and show my work to the people who truly matter – my own audience in India. Having come so far, be prepared to realize – all over again – that your work has just begun!

Did somebody say it ain’t over till the fat lady sings…

Sidharth Srinivasan was born in New Delhi, India in 1975. He graduated with a degree in Economics from St. Stephen’s College at Delhi University. His debut short, Swamohita, premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival in 2000, and his first feature, The Divine Vision, won Best Film, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor at the Karachi International Film Festival in 2001. Soul of Sand is his second feature film.

SOUL OF SAND was originally presented in theaters as part of Global Lens 2011 along with ten other films from around the world. The film will be available on DVD through the Global Film Initiative’s film catalogue in Winter 2012.

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