Operating in a similar vein to Cristian Mungiu’s neo-realist masterpiece “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” Ivan Ayr’s expertly crafted directorial debut gets so many things right to create a lived-in experience of the ghost-town-like dreary atmosphere of a wintery Delhi that I felt that his technical prowess might actually hamper my engagement with the characters in the film. Take, for instance, the beginning of the film, which opens before any visuals, with a black screen filled simultaneously with the sound of a man whistling flirtatiously to a woman, and of a dog barking. Before the audience even sees anything, the director has already established a connection between these two sounds, which he continues to echo throughout the music-less film by emphasizing barking sounds to be a source of diegetic background noise in the film’s environment, creating a persistent sense of tension and unpredictability about the threat of harassment in Delhi.
Ayr further strips the artifice off in “Soni,” by opting to shoot in the form of several single long-takes. Often recognized as an extremely ostentatious technique in shooting a sequence, the long-take definitely shows that Ayr knows. Importantly though, the use of this technique here also feels like it has a purpose in evoking the black-hearted “Dil” (Heart) of Dilli. Combined with the muted color palette, and soundtrack less environment, this shooting style even complements the director in framing the practical nature of conversations that take place between people. The silences, the stuttering, and the arguments between characters all have a long time to breathe here, as the camera can linger on, instead of cutting, to help highlight the emotions of people without the aid of any background score. This technique, therefore, helps paint a realistically grim portrait of the film’s world, allowing Ayr to focus on smaller details in conversations to reveal the nature of the characters situated at the heart of the story.
And, it is the complexity of the two central characters, Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohiyan) and Kalpana (Saloni Batra), that sets Ayr’s film apart from the numerous other movies that discuss gender issues in our India. Creating two characters here who are both emotionally sensitive, but deal with that sentiment in diametrically opposite ways, Ayr continually attempts to portray different ways in which women deal with their issues. Painting Soni as the slightly more decodable character who initially comes across as a rebel, Ayr, with the help of Ohiyan, turns the character into so much more of a conflicted rebel that her casual aggressiveness that seemed naive in the beginning begins to feel more justified. Ayr, of course, does not condone this behavior, and I think Ohiyan’s performance also suggests that even Soni doesn’t. Expressing her anger in one scene, and then her tiredness in the next, Ohiyan shows that maybe Soni knows just this way to react to harassment and that circumstances in the past have forced this aggression to become her self-defense mechanism. Kalpana’s method of coping, on the other hand, is far more complex – that of silent resolution. In the hands of Batra, Kalpana turns into a more aware extension of Kate Macer’s character (portrayed by Emily Blunt) in “Sicario.” Juggling duty with family, Kalpana has perhaps become more aware of the system, and how to operate in it, but remains perplexed by it. Her reactions to situations feel methodical, and less impulsive, which also means somewhat frustrating.
But, this maturity is what allows her to function much more generally in conjunction with society. It’s this ability of hers — to be calm and composed even in this crumbling environment — that made me wonder how she had reached this stage in her life, and if that is the only way for survival for women in a casually patriarchal society.