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Soul of Sand (Pairon Talle)

On the outskirts of Delhi, an old silica mine lays abandoned. A watchman still keeps his post each day, sitting attentively in the hot sun as security against absolutely nothing. It is both an existential absurdity and an occasional ironic reality in India, where feudal levels of duty still govern the lives of many. Director Sidharth Srinivasan begins “Soul of Sand” from this provocative premise, and then weaves it together with characters and appetites straight out of film noir.

The watchman submits to his master’s every demand, certain that his very life depends on total obedience. Although his wife is disgusted by her husband’s subservience, she too appears to know her place. When she finds her own way of rebelling, it is a course that invites tragedy.

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. [Synopsis by Cameron Bailey/Toronto International Film Festival]