By Prarthana Mitra
Exploring powerful and realistic female characters and empowering relationships is a rarity even in Indian parallel cinema. Ivan Ayr’s debut feature Soni, which has been nominated to compete in the Orrizonti section at the 75th Venice Film Festival (August 29-September 8), explores the character and experiences of a young woman employed in the police force, like a fly on the wall.
With its not-so-humble beginnings in the Work in Progress Lab of India’s National Film Development Corporation’s Film Bazaar (2017), Soni will represent India and showcase at Venice, which is considered to be one of the ‘Big Three’ alongside Cannes and Berlin, and kicks off this Wednesday. Speaking to Pandolin, Ayr said, “I’m absolutely thrilled and honored to have received this invitation. It is truly a fulfilling culmination to a long journey, being offered this prestigious platform.”
Qrius spoke to cast member Saloni Batra and director of photography David Bolen about the origin, trajectory and vision that has culminated in the much-awaited film.
Bechdel points and gender politics
The film is essentially a character study of two very different women, an ACP and her sub-inspector Soni (played by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) who happen to be bound by together by a common raison d’être: to enforce law and order. It explores the dynamics of their work relationship and develops the possibility of an unlikely friendship, the notion of a pivotal sisterhood.
“It’s a funny story really,” Batra, who plays superintendent to the titular Soni, tells me over an email correspondence. “When Kimsi Singh [producer] sent me the script first, I mailed her back saying that she might have sent me an incomplete draft. When I re-visited the script, I discovered it was a beautifully written female-centric film grounded in reality.”
“My character, Kalpana Ummat, is an IPS officer, working in the Delhi police force, and married to a senior IPS. She plays it by the book and is quite particular about details, which I found exciting and challenging given how different I am,” she added. Under Ayr’s guidance and extensive workshops with FTII’s Shardul Bhardwaj, Batra worked on the tonality of the character, working on her voice, gait, gestures, and backstory.
With crimes against women in India are at an all-time high, greater representation of women in law enforcement and in films certainly helps the cause, agrees Batra. Replete with morbid narrative overtones, Soni also extols the camaraderie between two female officers in a predominantly male field, which unfolds against the backdrop of the violent gender crimes they are struggling to solve.
Every excruciating detail was mapped out during the shoot, which Batra recounts as an extremely fulfilling process. “I had always dreamt of working with such a team where every detail was paid attention to. They left no stone unturned. Ivan and David made sure we got the correct shot.”
“I expected great things from the film, as did the entire team which worked tirelessly, but the Venice selection did take everyone by a complete surprise. It was a very overwhelming moment for me,” she said.
Bolen agrees. “Ivan is an incredible director, with real passion and vision. He’s the kind of guy who inspires everyone to do their best work day in and day out. We had an amazing group of artists and technicians all working together to create something special.”
Embracing realism: Long takes, practical light
Over a chat, the LA-based cinematographer beamed about shooting in the national capital. “India is an amazing place to make movies, perhaps one of the most cinematic countries with great natural light. Every street, alley, and courtyard has so much texture and history,” he said.
He spoke at length about how European art-house cinema, especially from Eastern Europe, served as a major reference point for the crew. Romanian New Wave filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, who makes ample use of practical light and long takes, was a major influence on the realistic lighting, austere production design, and measured performances in the film.
“We shot each scene as a single take without any cuts, which is a challenge for any cinematographer, and almost impossible to capture perfectly at one go,” Bolen said.
“In order to do this successfully, a lot of factors have to go right, and everything has to work together in harmony. There’s a lot that can go wrong, especially when some scenes last several minutes and move in between interior and external locations,” said Bolen, who has previously worked on Kendrick Lamar’s music videos, and showcased at SXSW and Tribeca. “But when everything aligned and we nailed a scene, there’s no better feeling,” he said.
“I shot almost everything handheld, and tried to light scenes using a mixture of natural and practical light sources. There’s something liberating about it. Our actors brought incredible performances because they were able to move around freely and embrace complex and fluid blocking.” He paused and reflected, “Sometimes they fall into darkness but that can be beautiful. When it felt real, it felt right.”
Winning the Facebook Award for Best ‘Work-In-Progress’ Project and Prasad DI Award for the Best Film in the ‘Film Bazaar Recommends’ section, Soni received post-production mentorship from renowned French editor Jacques Comets (Locarno winner Wajib) and veteran Festival Director Marco Mueller. It has been co-produced by Kartikeya Narayan Singh whose previous credits include Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot.
“I have always passionately championed the cause of cinema which manifests a personal unique voice,” says Singh, adding, “With the Orizzonti selection at Venice, Soni’s journey has begun on a great note and I am extremely confident that the film will be appreciated both internationally and in India, given the relevant social theme it engages with.”
The Horizons competition is often treated as the equivalent to Cannes’ ‘Un Certain Regard’ and explores the “aesthetic and expressive trends in world cinema”. Presented by Jabberwockee Films, Soni will compete with 18 other movies from all over the world. Besides, Indian filmmakers Rai Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad will also showcase their upcoming horror-fantasy film Tumbbad during the Critic’s Week at Venice.
The festival kicks off with Damien Chazelle’s Ryan Gosling-starrer First Man on August 29, and includes Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite in the lineup.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.