|Directed by||Ivan Ayr|
|Produced by||Kimsi Singh|
Kartikeya Narayan Singh
|Screenplay by||Ivan Ayr|
|Starring||Geetika Vidya Ohlyan|
|Music by||Nicholas Jacobson-Larson|
|Edited by||Ivan Ayr|
The Film Cafe Production
Soni is a 2018 Indian Hindi-language crime drama film edited and directed by debutant Ivan Ayr and stars Geetika Vidya Ohlyan and Saloni Batra. Written by Ayar and Kislye, the film chronicles the life of a police officer and her superintendent in Delhi Police who deal with the cases regarding crimes against women. It premiered in the Orrizonti (Horizons) section of the 75th Venice International Film Festival receiving a standing ovation. The film won the Facebook Award for Best 'Work-In-Progress' project. Ayr received a special mention for "Achievement In Directing" for the film at the 2018 Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Soni was screened at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival. It was followed by a screening at the 2018 MAMI Film Festival, where the film won the Oxfam Award on Gender Equality. It won the Best film award at the Pingyao International Film Festival that included a cash prize of $20,000, with half going to development of the director's next project, and half provided to the film's distributor in China. The film was released on 18 January 2019 on Netflix.
- Geetika Vidya Ohlyan as Soni
- Saloni Batra as Kalpana
Ivan Ayr did a screenwriting and direction course at San Francisco Film Society and started making short films Lost and Found and Quest for a Different Outcome after his office hours. Soni was inspired by the 2012 Delhi gang rape and Ayr said that "may be the seed was sown then but it took time to settle in the subconscious." Ayr said that the film deals with gender issue: "The assumption is that if they are female cops they will be in a position of power, they won’t be susceptible to everyday crimes that other women face". Ayr auditioned actress for the lead roles for six months and selected Ohlyan and Batra. The scenes in the film were shot in single take as Ayr wanted to "stay in a particular space and time with the characters, without the intrusion of cuts." Saloni Batra auditioned for the title character but was eventually cast in the role of police superintendent Kalpana. The actors did workshops together and worked on their body language and posture. She also talked to several female police officers. She said after reading the script, she was "blown away by the depth of understanding that Ivan, being a man, had of women."
The film's idea occurred to him in 2014 when he was reading articles about how Delhi had been put under the "spotlight of shame". It affected Ayr since he had lived there in his childhood. He felt disturbed and said that he started "questioning my own understanding of the city." Ayr then went through several articles and interviews on what the Delhi police go through and stumbled upon the fact that they have "probably the highest proportion of policewomen in the force." He was interested in how a women in the police force would react to a case of sexual violence. The pre-production started in November 2016; Ayr spent time with several Delhi police personnels and observed their "daily grind, the dynamics and hierarchies within". He completed the script in January 2017 and the film was shot for 24 days in Delhi in February. Soni was selected by the Work In Progress Lab of National Film Development Corporation of India's Film Bazaar in November under the mentorship of French editor Jacques Comets and director Marco Mueller. He said that one of the aspect that motivated him to write the script was how women in police work with their male counterparts and how they react to the cases of crime against women. He requested senior officials to allow him to spend some time with their teams as they went about doing their jobs. The film was mostly shot in handheld with mixture of natural and practical light sources. To get a female perspective into the story, Ayr said he used producer Kimsi Singh as the "sounding board" from the first draft. Later on, Ayr's former screenwriting teacher Lisa Rosenberg got involved as a script consultant. He said that he wanted the film to be as real as possible, "I realised that even if I’m writing it consciously, some male opinions may become dominant in the script, or I might miss out on a woman’s perspective." Ayr based the central character of Soni on several real police officers he met during the research. The team came to a consensus that Kalpana's restraint "would be necessary to show her in contrast to Soni, who is fierce." The opening scene of the film was directly inspired from a Delhi police programme in where a policewomen was teased while cycling and the rest of the force was monitoring her. Ayr said that he co-wrote, edited and directed the film because of the shoestring budget. He took inspiration from Jafar Panahi's 2006 Iranian film Offside for the treatment.
Geetika Vidya Ohlyan was studying at Delhi University and was also involved with street and stage plays in Delhi. On December 30, 2015, she got a call from a senior theatre personnel who told her about an "amazing role" which was followed by a call from her friend who was a part of the directorial team who wanted her to "self-tape" her audition. She sent her tape and received a call from Ayr who liked her audition and asking her to come in for improvised rounds. Geetika visited the local police stations and met the station house officer of her university for research. She said: "I saw how she had an entire sleeping area set up at her police station. There were times when she could not go home to her family." She realised that the difference between the personal and the private life of a policewoman was "very stark". Both Geetika and Saloni had individual and collaborative workshops. Geetika explained her character: "For me Kalpana was somebody Soni wanted to be but had no way of being. Kalpana is very thoughtful, but also ferocious in her own way." Geetika said that she picked Puma as a reference for her body language, "the stillness that the animal possesses, its incessant alertness at the back of its head." She felt that the character had to "look stiff and poised, but be ready to pounce because you are always alert." According to Geetika, the film was shot on 18 hours at a stretch on many occasions. Apart from the principal cast, the pool entirely consisted of non-actors or part-time actors with day jobs from Delhi which per Ayr contributed for the "colloquial authenticity in the film".
Saloni Batra had no prior acting experience and had specialised in fashion accessories. She later started doing theatre. In January 2017, she was called by one of the assistant directors of the film who wanted her to audition for the role of Kalpana. She also had a video call with Ayr at that time. She said that the performance "demanded a lot out of the character" from her. "We had to develop our walk, the tonality, and our relationship with other characters, just like we do in theatre." She spent some time with female police officers, went to police stations, sat and observed their mannerisms, body language and their routine.
The film was released on three screens from 12 to 16 October in UK. It was one of five to be selected by India's National Film Development Corporation, to be part of the prestigious ‘Work in Progress’ Lab at Film Bazaar 2017.
Jay Weissberg of Variety wrote: "An intelligent, subtle script and unobtrusively bravura camerawork are the hallmarks of this indie Indian gem about two policewomen combating harassment and gender expectations." J. Hurtado of Screen Anarchy said the film has "gripping storytelling, well-rounded believable characters, and great acting by the two leads, Geetika Vidya and Saloni Batra." He also included it in his list of 14 Favorite Indian Films of 2018. Simran Kaur of The Strand Magazine wrote: "A brilliant script manages to elucidate the struggles, both personal and professional, that these women go through with great depth by shifting the film between short excerpts of each of their lives as well as their scenes together, where their connection slowly grows." Deborah Young of The Hollywood Reporter wrote: "A feminist viewpoint becomes as gripping as a TV police drama."
Baradwaj Rangan called it "a rare kind of feminist film" that is "less of a polemic, more of a quiet character study". Namrata Joshi of The Hindu felt that the film "cut too close to the bone in its own quiet, discreet, unobtrusive yet unflinching way." She also wrote: "It’s a slice of life portrayal of incipient and accepted patriarchal perversions." Shubhra Gupta of The Indian Express opined that the film "stands out by making its lead protagonists women who lead by example." She also praised the performances of Ohlyan and Batra. Nandakumar Rammohan of The Quint called the single shot camerawork as "unobtrusive" which makes the audience "feel like a fly on the wall, quietly observing the lives of these women." He further wrote: "Soni is restrained and creates an atmosphere that might get your blood boiling but never reflects that aggression in the film itself." Rahul Desai of Film Companion gave a positive response and called it an "Excellently Acted, Nuanced And Unflinching Mirror To Our Times". Akhil Arora of NDTV called it "by far Netflix's most nuanced and best acquisition from India yet". Jyoti Sharma Bawa of Hindustan Times in nut shell says "Director Ivan Ayr’s Soni is an underrated gem in Netflix’s grand treasure. The film deserved a better launch and more faith." She rated it with 4 stars out of 5.
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