Print Edition - 2015-01-24  |  On Saturday

House of sand and fog

  • Prashant Rasaily’s film might be keen to show that it is not hewn to the traditional tropes of a ‘horror’ flick, but lacking a strong, persuasive script, it never consolidates into a coherent whole
- Preena Shrestha
House of sand and fog

Jan 23, 2015-

One of the fundamentals of effective supernatural/psychological thrillers is the feeling of inevitability, by which I mean the sense that the individuals on screen have hitched a ride on a train—even though they might not know it yet—that’s destined to go off the rails. We might not be able to predict the exact nature of the journey, the kind of plot twists and developments the filmmaker has in store for our poor protagonists, or how it’s all going to end, but even as we observe these people going about their everyday lives, there’s a tightening in our guts as we brace for the anvil to drop, because we know—even if only through familiarity with the conventions of the genre—that big, bad things are headed their way. But while it’s important to show these events unfold in the most well-paced and gripping manner possible, it’s also necessary, to a degree, to make clear the reasons behind the characters’ inability to escape their particular circumstances. If, for example, the teenage girl decides to stay in her house unsupervised, while aware that an insane serial killer is on the loose in the neighbourhood, we need to be told why she doesn’t just find a safer, brighter place to spend the night, or why she feels the need to take such a long, untimely shower.

That is foremost among the reasons why director Prashant Rasaily’s new Soul Sister just doesn’t work for me—it shies away from examining the compulsions and constraints of characters, which in turn makes it hard to generate sympathy for them when tragedy eventually comes to pass. The film, starring Namrataa Shrestha, follows a young woman, Maya, who is tormented by a recurring nightmare in which she most often finds herself roaming the tattered, eerie innards of an old house. When her aunt (Raveena Deshraj Shrestha), who’d raised her, makes a move to the US, Maya decides to head on to her family home in the hills and start afresh. Of course, given that her new digs—tucked away in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by thick woods—don’t exactly spell cheery, it leads one to question the merits of her decision, especially considering her already frail state of mind. But, for reasons the film refuses to divulge, she’s determined to stay, all on her lonesome, in this odd, vulnerable position, even when her dreams begin to spill over into her waking life, to the point where she can barely tell the two apart.

Soul Sister demonstrates the appreciable willingness to subvert expectation; it is keen to show that it is not hewn to the traditional tropes of a ‘horror’ film. However, despite that strategy, and despite some truly impressive camerawork and production design, it never really consolidates into a coherent whole, lacking as it does a strong, persuasive script that could’ve wrought some much-needed tension and impact from the premise. Scattered, overly cautious and just plain dull at times, the film disappoints for all the potential it squanders, scene by sluggish scene, by the time we get to the end credits.

I wish Rasaily had thought to offer more glimpses into Maya’s past, her childhood, her relationships—I’m not asking for your typical grainy flashbacks or bigger doses of the sort of blatantly expository dialogues that have been shoehorned in here to dismal effect, but we needed the peeling off of a few layers, at least more than what the insipid conclusion plonks down by way of explanation. There are moments when the entire film feels like an elaborate montage, skimming over details that could’ve offered some vital insight into this wounded person; she is essentially a bland, brooding question mark, stripped of personality and difficult to care about. Also sketchy is the way her tryst with a married man, played by a stilted Deepak Sharma, is framed: we are given no indication as to what’s brought them together besides mere coincidence, their attraction utterly unconvincing. For all of Maya’s monologuing about how Vastav makes her feel, none of that is evident to us; they could be strangers for all the warmth between them.

Speaking of monologuing, we really could’ve done without Shrestha’s grandiloquent voice-overs, so laboured and whispery with feeling, even when the lines themselves are matter-of-fact, that they often tip over into laughably pretentious territory. Still, the actress—who also produced the film—has a believable screen presence, a gravitas that draws you in, if only the material hadn’t been so anaemic, unable to tap her capabilities. As it is, her character does little more than loll around passively, looking pretty and ethereal and throwing out meaningful stares.

The film’s saving grace, then, would be the cinematography; we’re served up some striking, beautifully composed images awash in stony grey-greens. Shot in Sikkim, Soul Sister has made the most of the gloomy atmosphere afforded by the region’s mysterious, thick-with-mist surrounds to underline Maya’s social and spatial detachment from the world, although it does go overboard with the scenery on occasion, punching in extended shots of vehicles driving up and down roads and clouds roiling in the distance that serve little purpose. There is also a discernible effort at creating an impression of nowhereness here—the house itself, for instance, is never shown in its entirety, to be experienced only in partial, incomplete glimpses, which make it difficult to locate it in a particular time or place, designed no doubt to deepen the increasingly blurred line between our protagonist’s illusions and reality. The haunting background score and sound design, working in tandem to bind together a confused narrative, comprise another of the film’s stronger points.

Soul Sister might boast some credible components, but these aren’t nearly enough to stretch over and conceal its many craters, rendering it a hard sell overall. More a series of stylish, picturesque tableaux rather than a full-length feature, the film ultimately provokes neither fear nor thought. While making an attempt to distance itself from the predictable aspects of horror, it would’ve taken a story that was far better constructed and better told to really drum up engagement. I wouldn’t get too excited about this one if I were you.

Published: 24-01-2015 09:01

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