Ivan Ayr’s directorial debut Soni explores the streets of Delhi by night and the darkness that creeps up on two women separated by age and experience. Muted in its tones and subtle in its treatment, Soni examines the problems faced by working women in the national capital through two female members of the Delhi police force. Soni, played by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, is a tightly wound-up sub-inspector who has a problem controlling herself around men who misbehave. Saloni Batra plays Kalpana, an Indian Police Service officer and Soni’s boss. Kalpana often finds herself looking out for Soni, particularly after an outburst on the job that threatens Soni’s professional future.

Produced by Kimsi Singh and Kartikeya Singh, Soni will be screened in the competitive India Gold section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1). In separate interviews, the lead actresses of Soni, both of whom are making their feature film debuts, told Scroll.in about how they approached their characters. Edited excerpts.

Geetika Vidya Ohlyan: ‘Very aware and always alert’

“I studied at Delhi University, and alongside academics, I have been involved with street and stage plays in Delhi. On December 30, 2015, I got a call from a senior from theatre who said, there is this amazing role and I know you can do it, and then he hung up. Then I got a call from another friend, who it later turned out was a part of the directorial team. He wanted me to self-tape my audition.

I kept taping my audition past the deadline, because I knew I could do much better. On January 7, I sent in my audition a week late. I immediately received a call from Ivan, who asked me to come in for improvised rounds of auditions because he liked what I had done with my character.

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Soni (2018).

Since I had studied at the North Campus in Delhi, I visited the local police stations there. I met the station house officer of my university, who helped me a lot. 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. And when she did, they expected her to be this meek and humble woman. The difference between the personal and the private were very stark.

We had individual workshops, and I also did workshops with Saloni. We worked with Shardul, the amazing assistant director on the film. 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.

Saloni was very giving. I believe that strong women push other women forward. There was an unspoken understanding between us. We were made to feel like an organic whole, where one had to go an extra mile to ensure the other’s survival.

Saloni Batra and Geetika Vidya Ohlyan in Soni. Courtesy Jabberwockee Talkies.
Saloni Batra and Geetika Vidya Ohlyan in Soni. Courtesy Jabberwockee Talkies.

For my body language, I picked a puma, the stillness that the animal possesses, its incessant alertness at the back of its head. You have to look stiff and poised, but be ready to pounce because you are always alert. Having grown up in Sonepat in Haryana, I had experienced the need for that.

I worked on my body. I developed an alertness that led me to tilting my head in a certain manner. This gave me a sense of being very aware and always alert to protecting myself as well as people around me. I didn’t create Soni as a new person. Instead, I thought, what if Geetika had been a sub-inspector? How would she do it?

Soni is extremely vulnerable, but her vulnerability had to be turned into ferociousness. My mother brought me up alone, since I lost my father when I was one. I did have this alertness when walking on the streets and facing catcalls, and I had an admiration for strong women like my mother and grandmother. I also drew on an exercise I used to do in Delhi – I used to take solitary walks at around one am and two am on the streets on my own.

Ivan warned me that shooting nights would be very taxing. He said, it will be exhausting, it will start to show in your eyes and on your skin, and that will help the character. Sometimes, we would shoot at 18 hours at a stretch.

The shoot was sometimes an unnerving experience. Despite having all the legal permissions and a huge group, everybody was concerned about safety all the time. That security was such a concern made it clear why Ivan was archiving the dark reality of our times. You can never put your guard down because there is harm lurking in every corner. There is truth and reality in every part of the film. I have sheer respect for the producer, Kimsi Singh, who invested her hard-earned money, and Ivan for his nuanced understanding. Kartikeya Singh has been an experienced voice, and the entire team was a bandwagon of creatively rebellious and dedicated personnel.”

Saloni Batra: ‘A very relevant topic’

“I have no formal training in acting. I am actually a National Institute of Film of Technology graduate. I did my specialisation in fashion accessories. I came to Bombay to do styling for a while under a designer, and started doing theatre as well.

I was initially auditioned by the Indian casting Company for the lead role, but things didn’t work out. In January 2017, I was called by one of the assistant directors, and they said they wanted me to audition for Kalpana. I had a video call with Ivan, who was in Delhi at the moment.

I really liked the script. I have been doing theatre for the last six years, and I have also been in the web series Life Sahi Hai. The script for Soni had two women as the leads. You rarely come across such characters anywhere. I felt that this was a great opportunity for my first film role.

Saloni Batra in Soni. Courtesy Jabberwockee Talkies.
Saloni Batra in Soni. Courtesy Jabberwockee Talkies.

There are very few scripts where you can sit down and develop a character before you come in front of the camera. The performance demanded a lot out of the character. That excited and motivated me. We had to develop our walk, the tonality, and our relationship with other characters, just like we do in theatre. I got the same high that I would get on the stage. We had the freedom to tell the filmmakers what we could bring to the table as performers.

As part of our research, we also spent some time with female officers. We went to police stations, we sat and observed their mannerisms and the way they talked, their routine. In many instances, these women were emotionless, poker-faced. I am a very sensitive person. I realised that this was a really difficult job – as women, you needed to appear very strong to be taken seriously. You could not allow your emotions to take over despite whatever was going on in your personal life.

‘Madam’ on and off the sets

In terms of my dynamic with Geetika, we did a lot of workshops and exercises to develop a relationship. She would refer to me as ‘Madam’ all the time, even off camera, so that I could develop a protective attitude towards her.

Soni explores a very relevant topic, considering what is happening around us in terms of the Me Too movement. This film is going to show you how two women deal with their personal and professional problems and come out strong. Since I am from Delhi, I could relate to the character. I would always rebel against not being allowed out at home after eight pm. Shooting for Soni at night took me back to my days in Delhi. Bombay was an absolute change in that sense – I could come back by two am.”

(As told to Nandini Ramnath.)