‘Soni’ Director Ivan Ayr Shines a Light on Delhi’s Policewomen
Soni is the only Indian feature in the Venice Film Festival’s Orrizonti (Horizons) section this year, an honour it shares with past films like Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court (2014) and Vetrimaaran’s Visaranai (2015). Director Ivan Ayr makes his feature debut with a story about a New Delhi policewoman and her superintendent who have stepped up to curtail a crisis of violent crimes against women. The 35 year-old also wrote and edited Soni, which stars Geetika Vidya Ohlyan and Saloni Batra in lead roles.
As the 75th Venice International Film Festival kicks off, we spoke to Ivan about tackling sensitive issues, making a film on your own, women in Indian cinema and much more.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself, in terms of your relationship with film and how you got into filmmaking.
Ivan Ayr: I became a cinephile in my late teens. This was the time when Star Movies had just launched in India. I remember I would talk at length about some of those films with friends, try to do an informal critique of the film. I always thought filmmaking was something that was accessible to some very elite people. I didn’t know what it took to make a film, or even to go to a film school.
While I was doing my masters in United States, a professor encouraged me to pursue writing. I ended up taking courses in English after finishing my formal education in engineering. My literature course had in its curriculum a few novels that were adapted into films, and I would finish a novel then watch the film. I was intrigued by how filmmakers were adapting literary pieces. I enrolled for a screenwriting and direction course at San Francisco Film Society, continued learning and making short films after my office hours. My formal education and my job carried on and this was something I was doing after hours, over the weekends, that sort of thing.
What was it like to come at a story like Soni as a male filmmaker?
For one, in Indian cinema, the kind of women characters that I was getting to see, barring few exceptions obviously, weren’t women that I had crossed paths with in my life. They were either glorified or victimised.
I was interested in how the policewomen in Delhi were reacting to the incidents that were putting the city in what I call a spotlight of shame. Almost every other week or so there would be some horrific incident.
It was interesting because here we have women in police that are really powerful or at least are perceived to be powerful, to have the power to do something. At the same time, they know that simply because of their gender, they are potential targets. They are susceptible to the same crimes that are happening on the streets.
That was an interesting tussle of emotions that was worth exploring.
I wanted to just keep that in the background. The centre stage would be this story about this human being who is very passionate about what she does, but at the same time is vulnerable and not perfect. Like any other person she has strengths and weaknesses.
Talking about these incidents in Delhi and across India, there is often the feeling that the police isn’t of much help. Was that part of looking at it from a policewoman’s point of view?
I wasn’t trying to gloss over these facets of the police force. There’s definitely the aspect of the number of cases they have to deal with, the pressure they’re in, the kind of calls they have to make. Obviously, there are moral dilemmas. I wanted the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist and think about how would they react in a situation like that.
I cannot deny that there have been cases where there are police personnel who have deliberately not helped. But by and large, the Delhi police force in my experience comprises people who constantly find themselves bombarded with several cases at any given time and they have to decide which ones they want to pursue.
Their experiences are not very well documented in television, film or even literature. So representation was one of the things I had in mind, for sure.
What kind of research did you do for the script and how did it shape the film?
At the time I was writing my first draft, I wasn’t focusing too much on the details of the policing. Being in the US, you can only research that much. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I immediately flew to India and spent about a month travelling across several police stations in Delhi, requesting senior officials that they allow me to spend some time with their teams and allow me to be a fly on the wall as they went about doing their jobs.
My producer Kartikeya (Narayan Singh) was the one who facilitated all of this. He was also working on the second and third drafts with me. He comes from a family of policemen, so he was from the very beginning invested in the premise of the film.
It not only enriched my subsequent drafts but quite profoundly transformed the story itself - the kind of cases I saw them handling on a daily basis, the working relationship between women and male officers, the kind of pressure they were under everyday.
What was the journey like getting the film made in terms of getting funding and producers on board?
It’s actually a self-funded film. My producer Kimsi (Singh), who has worked with me on my short films as well, we pooled in our savings. It’s so hard to raise funds for fiction films, even if you are a high-profile student of a high-profile film school. For a debut filmmaker, to be setting off on a feature film project is quite daunting. Having that at the back of my mind, I was saving and I told Kimsi in the very beginning that this is something we will have to fund ourselves.
It was the hardest thing to get a producer who was invested in the premise of the film, even if they weren’t quite satisfied with the initial draft of the film. That’s where Kartikeya came in. I wanted to reach out to him because of his profile, having done Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan and Chauthi Koot with Gurvinder (Singh), who happens to be my favourite filmmaker in India.
However, when the final draft was finished, we were quite certain we didn’t need much of anything else. We were confident in what we had and I was quite certain how I wanted to shoot the film.
How did Film Bazaar (NFDC’s annual film market) help along the way?
I wasn’t very confident of how I had edited the film. Gurvinder was actually a consulting editor on the film, but I still wasn’t exactly sure if it looked right.
Film Bazaar has something called Work-in-Progress Lab which is for projects that have just finished their rough cut. I don’t know of any equivalent anywhere in the world that would look at your film and make suggestions to improve it. We applied, and we were fortunate enough to be selected as one of the five projects. They have mentors who see your project, give you feedback, what works for them, what to change. I listened and it helped me to refine the cut.
I wanted to talk to you about getting into Venice. Were you applying for a ton of festivals, or did you have a few in mind?
We knew we had a lot of work after Film Bazaar. The sound was very raw. I knew that I would take my time polishing, doing the sound design, sound editing and then the final mix. There were a few key festivals that we missed simply because we didn’t have the film ready. It was around end of April, early May when we finished the film. That’s when I started sending the film out. I’m glad that Venice liked it enough to include in their Orrizonti competition.
Soni will have its World Premiere at the Venice Film Festival on 5 September. It is expected to screen at Indian film festivals later in the year.