Mumbai Hidden Gem: How 'Slow Burn' Captures the Urban Isolation Found in Delhi

'Slow Burn' Still - Publicity - H 2019
Sunit Sinha

Sunit Sinha's directorial debut revolves around an immigrant from Punjab who finds himself rootless when he moves to the capital for work.

India's sprawling capital Delhi has been the setting of many cinematic stories, and perhaps the most well-known international project is the one that captured the city's flamboyant Punjabi culture in Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding (2001). Beyond that, there have been countless other mainstream Delhi-based Bollywood hits across all genres, from comedy (2011's Delhi Belly) to romantic drama (2011's Rockstar) and everything in-between.

But there are few films that have delved into the Delhi's dark underbelly such as Sunit Sinha's Slow Burn (Ranj), which bows in the Mumbai Film Festival's India Story section. The film revolves around a Sikh man Amanpreet (Adesh Sidhu), the educated son of a farmer who has to leave his village in the Punjab and his fiancée Geetu (Ekta Sodhi) in search of a better life in Delhi.

Sinha tells The Hollywood Reporter that he drew on his own personal experience of being an immigrant in the city: "I come from a small town in Bihar and I have stayed away for more than half my life, but still there is this strange feeling that you don't belong, you still feel like an outsider."

The film's protagonist was inspired by a real Sikh man who Sinha says looked like he was "trapped in the city because he believes that he doesn't belong in the space that he is forced to be in."

Sinha also set out to dispel the myth about Punjab being a prosperous state: "The reality has been changing over the last decade or so, with rising unemployment, especially in the rural areas, dying industries and the drug problem because of dearth of employment."

To give Slow Burn a realistic feel, casting was crucial, for which Sinha looked for actors who could be more believable and in tune with their characters. Adesh Sidhu, who plays the lead, has been part of Sinha's theater group Actor Factor and underwent physical changes, losing almost 33 pounds, while working at an actual farm three months before shooting started. "He comes from the same region where we shot the film and I wanted him to look like an actual farmer's son working in the field and not have a gym-toned body," says Sinha.

Similarly, female lead Ekta Sodhi also hails from from the same region. "I approached well-known theater director Neelam Mansingh, who connected me to some people through whom I found Ekta, since I wanted an actress who didn't look too urban," adds Sinha.

A former advertising executive and a theater artist for over two decades with appearances in TV shows, Sinha has also explored the theme of urban isolation in his earlier short films. As for being inspired by Delhi, he says, "That is a choice a filmmaker has to make in how to show the city as a character. Delhi as a city can be ruthless. Look at the state of the Yamuna river, with its water turning into toxic sludge caused by industrial waste being emptied into the river. It is symbolic of the city slowly dying."

Trying to get a film off the ground which revolves around an offbeat subject had its obvious challenges, starting with financing. Sinha said that when things didn't work out with a financier involved with mainstream Punjabi films, "I decided to go on my own ... Adesh and I decided to become producers and raised the money privately."

An initial cut of Slow Burn was showcased in November 2018 at the Film Bazaar in Goa, a co-production market and showcase lab organized annually by the government's National Film Development Corporation, where Sinha said he received encouraging feedback. Since then, the pic has traveled to the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, the Singapore South Asian International Film Festival and the Chicago South Asian Film Festival ahead of its India premiere at Mumbai.

The other big challenge for an indie film is to get distribution. "We are in talks with independent film production companies and digital content aggregators, so let's see what happens," Sinha says. "Right now, it's too early to say."

As for his next project, Sinha says he will again explore urban isolation, "though it is a different kind of film. Now when I think about it, this has been a constant thread in all my films."