Director Ivan Ayr's Soni begins with a woman cycling down a deserted, shadowy street in Delhi. A palpable sense of unease builds – it's late, she's on her own and there's a man keeping pace with her, taunting her in sexually explicit terms. It's every woman's worst fear.
It's here that we begin to see just how the film subverts expectations – Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), part of a decoy police operation, not only taunts the man back, but lures him down a dark alley and beats him bloody before her superiors have to pull her off. It's a pattern that will recur several times over the course of the 96-minute film.
"The opening scene was inspired by a real-life programme that the Delhi police started two or three years ago. It's not the same as what is shown in the film but extremely similar – a policewoman goes off and I don't know if the purpose is to have her act as a bait, but she's important. Her team is monitoring her and they see if anyone misbehaves. So part of it was imagining how dangerous the work is and how nerve-wracking it must be for the person actually in that position," says the Chandigarh-born Ayr, who spent five days every week at police thanas across the city for a month to get a sense of how they operate.
The film unfolds against the backdrop of the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case. Disembodied voices over walkie-talkies and the radio talk of introducing special buses and taxis for women, of segregating them for their own safety. The women sardonically discuss ways to avoid the male gaze – putting on sindoor even if they aren't married, wearing a "pant shirt" to the park to meet a partner so the moral police don't catch them. There are more serious discussions too, on the adolescent shame of menstruation and the pressure to have a child soon after marriage.
Soni had its world premiere at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, under the Orizzonti (Horizons) Competitive category. It also won best film at the Pingyao International Film Festival. The film is currently being screened at the Mumbai Film Festival as part of its competitive India Gold category.
Ayr spoke about getting into the mindspace of two complex women, how the decision to co-write, direct and shoot his debut feature came about and why Soni comes from a personal place:
How did the idea for Soni come about?
In 2014, I was reading articles about how Delhi had been put under the 'spotlight of shame'. I had a personal connection to the city, having spent six to seven years of my childhood there. It was very disturbing and I was questioning my own understanding of the city. Amidst that, I went through a lot of articles and interviews on what the Delhi police go through. Their police department is credited with having what is probably the highest proportion of policewomen in the force, so I was interested in understanding their perspective and how they react to such incidents. I felt that their perspective was what was missing from was the whole conversation. Being part of the police, they're expected to enforce the law, bring the crisis under some sort of control. But at the same time, they themselves are susceptible to the same crimes and I'm sure that they're aware of that. I felt that they must have a very personal perspective and I wanted to understand that tough emotion – being in a position of power, or being perceived to be in a position of power but at the same time, being treated as a second-class citizen in the society. If I put myself in their shoes, I would be enraged. I wanted to show these emotions through these two characters – one who is a quite visibly enraged and on the other hand, has the responsibility of her career. If you've been saddled with the responsibility to uphold law and order and the same rules apply to you, how do you go about doing that? Being a person in uniform, you're supposed to keep your own feelings in check and look at things objectively. It was a very appealing subject.
You've co-written, directed and edited the film. Was that the plan from the beginning?
I did my Masters in engineering in the US, where I also worked for a few years. I was interested in studying journalism in addition to this degree, which I did for a little bit. I couldn't pursue it for long because of the high tuition costs. I was taking courses in the literary form. One thing led to another and I got interested in writing for the screen. At the time, I was in San Francisco, where there was a film society. I started to take screenwriting courses and they were offering directing courses as well. I started making my own short films and I knew at the time that my first feature would be set in India. I started writing this film. Kimsi Singh had produced my short films so I reached out to her and we started developing this.
The plan to co-write, direct and edit came about while we were developing the film because we had a limited budget. Editing was a software I was comfortable learning. You can attribute that to my technical background. I edited the whole thing myself but I cannot take full credit. I also had a consulting editor. When I had the director's cut, I went to the Film Bazaar's 'Work In Progress' lab, where I got the opportunity to work with Jacques Comets, a renowned French editor. He saw the film and refined the edit. So it went through three or four iterations.
What was the research process like?
My research on the police was limited to the books I had and online interviews. I knew that because I don't come from a police family, my understanding was incomplete, half-baked, maybe even incorrect. In the first draft, we mostly focussed on their relationship and them balancing their personal and professional lives. The professional life was not something I was confident about and I wanted to spend time with some of the Delhi policewomen to understand how their relationship works and how they go about their everyday life. I travelled across police thanas in Delhi. I was just a fly on the wall observing their work. I looked at how policemen and policewomen work together, what cases they handle, the proper terminology to be used. That experience opened my mind and helped craft the relationship of the two women. It helped enrich the story.
Soni not only illustrates the problems women visibly face but also reflects the rich interior lives of its female protagonists. What did it take for a filmmaker like you to get into that headspace or get familiar with it?
Some part of it is my own experience with the women in my life, especially my mother who is a school teacher. One thing that I noticed was that the work dynamics were quite different from our family dynamics. At work, nobody – neither the students nor the teachers nor the staff – ever ever distinguished based on the gender of a teacher. At the workplace, things were fair and balanced and they were equals. However, at home…She was working and my dad was at home. But taking care of the household was inherently her responsibility. Having that in the subconscious must have played a role in writing these two characters. I wasn't particularly interested in making this huge statement on this issue. It's always been relevant, it's just that a lot of attention is being paid to it now. But my objective was to tell this story from a personal perspective because I thought that would resonate more strongly with the viewers.
Something interesting I noticed about the film was that every festival or public celebration is marred by something terrible that occurs soon after. This happens thrice. What was the thought process behind this juxtaposition?
The juxtaposition was something that happened organically. It is something that is part of our society. Festivals come and go but people are oblivious to serious matters. They're oblivious to the troubles of others. So the festival of Lohri which I've shown in the film – I don't know if it was like that always, but recently it's come to be known as the celebration of the baby boy. So that was intentional, we've come so far but we still take these festivals to celebrate something that is inconsequential.
Each scene is shot in one take. How challenging was that to pull off?
We had to choreograph each scene while making sure that it didn't feel choreographed and felt natural. We would spend hours on the day of the shoot getting the choreography right. The idea behind this was to give the viewer an opportunity to put themselves in the protagonists' shoes, understand them a little better and make them consider how they would handle the situation. That was one of the objectives – to make it feel so real, you imagine you're there. The second was my own personal desire to represent what I had seen. I was observing this uncut, being in the space with people handling complex situations in real time. It was important to depict that. Lastly, it helped increase the tension in each scene. The actors knew that their characters were dealing with a tense situation and that I wasn't going to call 'cut'. They knew that once they started, they had to go through the scene entirely. They were nervous and on their toes and that reflected in their characters.