Indian New Wave?

SOUL OF SAND’s Sidharth Srinivasan speaks with Rob Avila about modernity, caste and breathing new life into the Indian independent scene

A scene from SOUL OF SAND

I had an opportunity to sit down with the film’s affable and thoughtful director, Sidharth Srinivasan, just after he introduced the film to a sold-out house on January 15th at the Museum of Modern Art. At the end of our conversation, he returned to the screening room for what proved a long and spirited Q&A with his clearly moved, cosmopolitan audience.  Below are a few highlights from our discussion.

We just watched the opening title sequence of your film. It’s a striking series of images of the landscape around Delhi, including shots of quiet farmland and, increasingly, industrial pollution and urban sprawl. It seems a perfect illustration in itself of the theme you were alluding to in your opening remarks, namely, the tension between tradition and modernity. One also gets the impression that Delhi, your hometown, has changed much in your lifetime.

Oh my god, and how! It’s really changed. This film is in a sense a reaction to that. I was living in Bombay for six or seven years and then returned, and like any city it’s expanding. This film is shot entirely in the region known as the NCR, which is short form for the National Capital Region of Delhi. It’s the outskirts where all the yuppies—all the people who are making money, the new businesses—they’re all going there. So you have malls, multiplexes, condos—the works. It’s a bit like Las Vegas, because this whole landscape is a desert and hill range. It was populated by agrarian people. Those people have sold off their ancestral lands. And they’re steeped in tradition. I’m not passing any value judgments here, but they’re often uneducated, and they become overnight millionaires by selling their lands. So they stop agriculture and livestock rearing as a form of livelihood.

This is the social-cultural context for the film. There’s this huge tension between the influx of Western-educated urban professionals and these people who have made a lot of money by selling land. [The film] is dealing a lot with land and caste politics. These people, they’ve got a lot of money suddenly, so they want an SUV, they want the right address. But a woman is still treated as an asset; she’s like property; her body is the repository of family honor amongst these communities. So if a girl steps outside of those bounds with a boy from another caste, another community, the family themselves will kill the daughter, or they’ll hire someone to. It’s honor killing, to use the common parlance. Actually, dare I say it, we were ahead of our time, because when I wrote and shot the film it was coming to a head. It’s been happening so much in and around Delhi. It had become a huge issue in the press by the time the film got completed. So that, in a way, is what I meant by tradition versus modernity.

Is it the force of development driving this increasing frequency of honor killings, as you see it?

Sidharth Srinivasan speaks with audience members after the U.S. premiere of SOUL OF SAND

What is growth? What is development? That’s the million-dollar question. There’s a reaction [to it], and it’s manifesting itself in fairly ugly ways often. I mean, this is happening all across India. You have this whole Naxalism, this ultra-left terrorism. Wherever the tribal populations of India are located are rich areas, because they’re the jungles and the forests. The state and corporate India want to completely take over those areas in order to exploit the mineral wealth. The people [there] have been voiceless; they’re completely disenfranchised. (I’m giving you an analogy for what’s happening [in the film].) Now you have what’s called the Red Corridor. It’s around 20 states of India where there are these rebels (they’re called the Maoists, the Naxalites, these are terms that are used for them). It’s an armed rebellion against the state; they decapitate cops, they ambush, they kidnap, I mean the works. It’s a real threat.

Why is this happening? It’s because of the so-called growth and development, these special economic zones. This going kit ‘n’ kaboodle into the jungles, uprooting—it’s what happened to the Native Americans. Everybody is talking about this economic miracle, emerging India, development, growth, and so on, but it’s a machine that’s really only benefiting some; it isn’t benefiting everybody.

How did you decide on the film’s specific narrative approach?

So I saw all of this. [Meanwhile,] in India there’s a problem for me as a filmmaker: Either you’re making the mainstream Hindi narrative or you fall into the paradigm of social realism. In India, art cinema is equated with the cinema of social realism. I wanted to try my hand at subverting that. I have a love for genre cinema. I love transgressive filmmakers. I love Pasolini. I love filmmakers who are really pushing the envelope, aesthetically and content-wise also.

At the same time, I wanted to see if I could make melodrama work, because that’s us, that’s our ethos. We are melodramatic as a people. Our mode is to be more expressive and vocal about our feelings, and sometimes that takes a violent form, which is partly what the film is about. But you’re spot on when you said it has a trace of the absurdist about it. I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for that. People have said, ‘What happened in the second half? Why did it become so violent? You didn’t need to do all of that!’ That’s exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to catch an audience unawares, to try and subvert expectations. As far as the story goes, it was addressing, ‘What is growth? What is development? What is this urbanization that’s happening? How has my city changed?’ [It centers on] a man who is caught on the cusp between tradition and modernity. An event happens in this protagonist’s life that forces him to make a choice between tradition and modernity—or love, equating the love between the young couple as modernity in a sense, going against the norm, or convention. They’re breaking barriers. So he makes a choice, and I’d argue he makes his choice for the right reasons, but it all goes wrong. He doesn’t have an Achilles heel. It’s circumstance, you know?

How challenging was it to get this film made?

We went through hell, honestly. Me and my wife—who’s the producer of the film alongside me in India—it took us around three years, from first draft of the script through first copy of the film, and then it got into TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival], and the rest followed. But it really was very tough. It was completely self-produced. We begged, we borrowed, we did everything short of stealing, we maxed out our credit cards, all of that.

But I was very lucky. Prior to shooting, I’d applied to the Hubert Bals Fund in Rotterdam. They have a new fund for digital production. This is not a development grant like GFI gives. They give around 20,000 euros, and they take the [distribution] rights for the Benelux [i.e., Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg]. So it’s like a pre-sale in a sense. We somehow or other managed to complete the shoot, and we were in debt so badly. Then, a week after, I got the news that they’d come onboard. So that saved me for a while. But this was the first time I was working on HD. What I hadn’t factored in is that, though shooting is far cheaper on HD, post-production is really expensive. I had 32 hours of footage. For a feature film! This wasn’t a documentary. I was shooting a ratio of like 1 is to 12 [takes], 1 is to 15. Some shots we were doing 30 retakes, 50 retakes. I had that liberty because we were shooting on video. I was going ballistic over there! [laughs] So edit was a nightmare. It took around five, six months, and as a result it cost a lot of money. It was a learning experience. The Hubert Bals Fund enabled me to complete my entire editing. Then, again, we had to knock on doors just for the last leg of the journey. Thankfully then [Toronto International Film Festival Co-director] Cameron [Bailey] saw the film and he loved it and wanted it at TIFF.

This [GFI partnership] has been another gift, real manna from heaven. It’s so great, because after the US premiere here, we’re off to the European premiere in Rotterdam. So it’s traveling, and we’ve already sold five territories: US and Canada through GFI; and Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg through the Hubert Bals Fund. So it’s going to reach non-traditional, not NRI [Non-Resident Indian] pockets. That’s actually the failure of the [Indian] system. I think it’s fantastic that we have such a strong industry and market region. We’ve not capitulated to Hollywood as an industry. The problem is—and it’s been going on so long and it’s so self-sustaining—that if I were to go with an Indian distributor, they’d only pitch it to Non-Resident Indian markets, say Queens or Jackson Heights [in New York City], areas where there’s a huge immigrant population. And the truth of the matter is that that population only wants to see Bollywood. Their notion of a return to roots is this huge, grand musical extravaganza. The masala [film], that’s what gets them. They’re not interested in this kind of film. So it would be a betrayal of my film if I were to do that; it wouldn’t be reaching its audience.

Rob Avila is a San Francisco-based writer, and film and stage critic. He is a regular contributor to SF360 and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has worked with the Global Film Initiative on a range of projects and programs, including production of GFI educational resources and the Initiative’s Granting Program.

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