Soni: A sub-inspector with the Delhi Police. Feisty and streetwise. Part of a decoy operation that aims to nab eve-teasers and assaulters. Separated from her husband.
Kalpana Ummat: An IPS officer with the Delhi Police. Sensitive and idealistic. Head of the decoy operation. Married to a police commissioner.
These two uniformed women join forces to fight crime against women on Delhi’s streets. As the story unfolds on a Delhi winter, when the city acquires a certain idyllic charm, Soni (played by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) and Ummat (Saloni Batra) drive the narrative that subtly yet resolutely scratches the surface to expose society’s deep-rooted gender bias, the cracks in the system and the power imbalance.
The movie’s setting and characters are a result of much deliberation by its writer-director Ivan Ayr. “My intention was to tell a story that gives a very personal vibe even as it follows the life of two human beings, who are struggling within as well as navigating the system that they are a part of. The story also brings out the contradiction that those who are perceived to be in a position of power are, perhaps, powerless themselves,” the 35-year-old says.
The feature film, which bagged the Best Film on Gender Equality award at the recent 20th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, had a world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in August and will be released on Netflix early next year.
Writing Soni’s script took time. The 2012 gang-rape in the national capital left Ayr disturbed. “Yet, I didn’t want to write something as a knee-jerk reaction. I wanted to internalise and understand how Delhi, the city that I assumed I knew, could be so different,” recalls Ayr. His family lived in Chandigarh but he would often visit Delhi to spend time with his extended family members and friends. While the debates about women’s safety were raging, Ayr sought to understand how the policewomen react to the incidents of assault and harassment.
“Being in uniform, they are expected to bring some sort of resolution and the public looks up to them. Their perspective on these crimes had to be different from the policemen. I intended to explore their tussle of emotions, strengths and vulnerability,” says the debutant director. What adds layers to the story is the different socio-economic backgrounds of Soni and Ummat. These influence their reactions to work situation too. Soni deals with unlawful activities first-hand while Ummat, being a senior cop, is one step removed from it.
In 2014, Ayr started writing the script. After he wrapped up its first draft in early 2016, he thought of spending time with the police in Delhi. “I managed to do that during August and September 2016. Drawing from that experience, the second and third drafts were written soon after. This experience also helped me develop my characters and forge their relationships,” says Ayr. Since he was away from India for some years, Ayr roped in Delhi-based writer Kislay Kislay to work on the Hindi screenplay. Ayr worked as a software programmer and technical writer in San Francisco before his passion for cinema got the better of him and he enrolled for a screenwriting and direction course at the San Francisco Film Society in 2011.
For Soni, Ayr adapted the technique of shooting each scene in a single shot. “The idea was to package the story in a way that it seems fresh and stays with the audience for long,” says Ayr. This technique also necessitated casting theatre actors. “I sought out actors who were actively involved with theatre since they had to memorise the scenes and their choreography. Personally, I was tired of seeing a handful of actors on screen and tried bringing in as many new faces as I could. That apart, there was budget constraints, too,” says the director, who has made short films such as Lost & Found (2014) and Quest for a Different Outcome (2015). This technique gave the movie a raw feel and ensured its flow was not interrupted. This also challenged the actors. “They had to be on their toes. That elevated the tension in scenes,” he adds.
When Batra got to know how the film was to be shot, she was initially nervous. She had performed with her college band while studying at National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai, as well as acted in plays by theatre groups such as Artists’ Studio and Theatrewallah after moving to Mumbai five years ago, but she had never faced a camera before. “During the first two days of the shoot, I was wondering how to deliver. But Ivan had complete trust in us. The team, too, helped us and we used to have a lot of rehearsals,” says Batra, who has earlier assisted in the casting for several movies, including Dangal (2016).
Ohlyan, a graduate in English from Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College, considers herself “blessed” to be a part this journey. “As an actor, I had to put myself and my limitations aside. I was a medium to tell a story,” she says, adding, “Only organically connected beings can bring to life a vision.” Apart from attending workshops together, Ohlyan and Batra spent a couple of weeks at Delhi police stations being “flies on the wall”. They observed the policewomen as well as their male colleagues. They also spoke to them about their life beyond work. This experience helped them in figuring out the tonality and texture of their characters.
Sound is another striking aspect of this movie. Ayr says, “We tried to create the surrounding of characters in the city with sound. For example, we thought of shooting a scene in the Metro, which is integral to the city. Since that was not possible, we decided to make its presence felt by using the sound of Metro in the background. Similarly, there are a lot of construction sounds in it.”
The character of Soni, whose second name is never mentioned to maintain a certain ambiguity about which part of India she belongs to, has a lot of pent-up rage. Even though Ayr has experienced that rage himself, he believes that there has to be a counterforce to that. That’s something Ummat represents. “When we express our rage in a violent form, it’s often misunderstood. Is rage going to get us anywhere? Is there another way of expressing it? I wanted another perspective to that,” says Ayr, who tips his hat to Amrita Pritam and her autobiography The Revenue Stamp (1976) in the movie. “She was a mighty force in her time and people were aware of that. In spite of that, she was belittled time and again,” he says.
At present, Ayr is occupied with developing a new script — a drama involving a young father and his son. Last month, he also returned to India from the US for good. While Soni awaits a Netflix release, the director enjoys “a sense of fulfilment”. Through Soni, he believes, he could bring out the human-ness of his characters with all their flaws. “That’s something lacking in Indian cinema,” he says.