Jio MAMI is a home to storytellers and a space that nurtures, enables and brings into focus talent. Storytellers Are Us: The Origin Story is our new series nurturing and bringing budding talent in focus. It is our little discovery vehicle to build bridges, to propel movie magic and the spirit of collaboration. It introduces creators to each other and new creators to the audience.
Filmmakers Ivan Ayr and Anjali Menon chat about Ivan’s work on Storytellers Are Us. Ivan’s first film Soni started its journey in India with the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (India Gold, 2018) and Milestone was part of our India Gold Official Selection List 2020. Both films are streaming on Netflix.
Note: We recorded this on 3rd March 2020 when Milestone’s release date on Netflix had not yet been locked. Thank you Netflix for giving us permission to use the footage.
Kalpana Nair: Hi, Ivan and Anjali. Welcome to Storytellers Are Us: The Origin Story. We are so excited to have the two of you with us here today, especially because both of you are such famously reclusive, private filmmakers, who we seldom see on screen.
Smriti Kiran: Anjali was very impacted by Soni, which won the Best Film on Gender Equality Award at Jio MAMI. She spoke so eloquently about it and therefore when your new film, Milestone, started to do the festival circuit, we wanted you two to get together.
Anjali Menon: It was great fun to be on the jury because we were all from different backgrounds and we were watching these films and sharing our feedback. I had not heard of Soni. I had not known about it. So, for me, it was a blank slate, with no expectations. I just sat there in front of the screen and I was blown away by the authenticity. For me, it spoke of the real world. There is something so complex and yet so deceptively simple when you watch it. And that combination is very rare. It grabbed me by the collar and said, ‘Sit up and watch this film with full attention.’ And I loved it. I completely love that because there is a lot of beautiful craft, which is very much within the story you’re trying to tell. It’s at a very subliminal level and you don’t even realise the craft until you’re well into the film, which is a great achievement for any filmmaker. I believe it’s your first feature. So, big, big compliments to you on that, you and your team.
I also felt every department had worked very beautifully and the synergy had really shown up even within the frame, and that’s remarkable. Congratulations on the award. We loved it. There was no doubt. It was a unanimous decision.
Ivan Ayr: Thank you so much for those kind words. Yes, it’s always a team effort. I’m just there to guide my team. It was a very fulfilling experience for us as well.
Anjali Menon: When did you start thinking of Soni?
Ivan Ayr: The first thought came to me probably sometime in 2014. It was after this article that I had finished reading. This was in the aftermath of the 2012 Nirbhaya case. In 2014, the article was simply asking whether we are in a position to prevent something like this from happening again? So, it was like a Q&A with several people from the police department.
What had caught my attention in that article was that nearly all of the people that were interviewed were male figures at the police department. That put a thought in my head that shouldn’t we be interviewing or shouldn’t we be asking the women. We have enough women in the police force as well, so perhaps looking at this from their perspective might give us some different ideas, maybe some different ways of dealing with this. So, that was the very first thought that came to my mind. ‘Okay, let’s make a film which is from that perspective. I don’t want to allude to anything that has happened in the past, but I just want to set this in a contemporary metropolitan city.’ Just kind of setting up this whole space and world where we just looked at things from this policewoman’s perspective.
Those were the very initial thoughts. There was just one character. Once I started diving deeper into who this character is – her motivations, her fears, her aspirations, her life, her professional life, her personal life, then it seemed like it was too contradictory. Maybe it’d be interesting to have this one character but then I started feeling like this character is very torn, so, let’s have two characters. As soon as one became two, then the story became about this conflict between them. They have a good relationship but they also keep getting in each other’s way of doing things.
That was how things evolved over time. In 2016 when I actually finished my first draft, I was living in the United States. I wasn’t here. And most of what I had written had included some research based on Wikipedia pages and books and protocols in the police force and things like that.
Something profound happened when I actually came to India and spent about a month with certain people in the Delhi police. They were very kind enough to let me just sit there and observe. Going from one police station to another, looking at how things worked and what kind of relationship police officers had with each other, personal and professional, actually made me realise that there were a lot of things in my first draft that didn’t really ring true or didn’t really feel authentic. That changed a lot of things. So, in the following drafts, I’d incorporated a lot from that experience.
Also, it impacted the way we shot the film so that it was observational – sticking with this one single shot in one particular space. So as long as we’re in that space, we’re not going to cut. But that’s how things happened over time.
Anjali Menon: I think when things like that happen, whether we are there or not, it impacts all of us. The incident around Nirbhaya was something that the whole nation was really, really jostled by; because of everything, the media narrative, what people felt, the collective experience, all of that was so intertwined with that that many of us were affected in many ways. But there are very few films that have actually come out of that time for the level of impact it’s actually had. That in itself made it very special for me.
The whole Nirbhaya incident was actually about the anger which had erupted. It was this anger that had been repressed for so long that had finally erupted and to think that that had actually happened and then to go back and make these sweet little films for things not to have changed was actually quite disturbing.
When I saw Soni, the whole idea of how you’ve used that anger was very interesting. Even, can you be angry? Can you not be angry? These are all questions that are dealt with in reference to our identity. And the thought of putting an angry young woman in the middle of the film is fabulous.
So when you’re explaining it to me, I think it was informed by all of those things which have happened. And also about what you observed as ground reality when you were down there. That synthesis is very clear when you watch the film.
Ivan Ayr: Yes. It was also about what was the best way to express that anger. Even though they’re naturally angry about the way things are, they are bound by this code of conduct because of the uniform. They’ve taken an oath to operate within those bounds of law and order, so they are bound by a certain responsibility. That is an inner conflict – perhaps, it was just my own imagination – that they are constantly at odds with or constantly grappling with. Some people are just successful at containing their emotions and others are not so successful. So, that’s why there was the two-character approach. It’s fine once you’ve decided that one is able to cope with things and the other one is probably not so successful. But then the idea was, can we get to the root of that? Why one might not be able to and the other one might be able to. Is there a certain level of privilege that’s involved? So another one is, dealing with ground reality versus the other one who is once removed.
Anjali Menon: Wouldn’t you also think that what you have shown us as the uniform and the system is also representative of the kind of role that a certain gender is supposed to play? And there are all of those diktats about how one needs to function and what one’s function is within society? So doesn’t it also represent that?
Ivan Ayr: Yes. I mean, it’s more romantic and idealistic to think that it’s the same uniform that a male or female is wearing, but the reality is more complicated than that. In my experience, to be very honest, at that time when I was spending time with them I did not see any kind of disparity—I shouldn’t say discrimination—or any kind of difference between the way a policewoman was dealing with their male counterparts or vice versa. It seemed very egalitarian and very fair and professional.
But I think it’s when you actually step outside of that police thana, when you are dealing with the general public that these differences in perception start to come into play. It wasn’t surprising to me that the public would deal with a policewoman in a different way than they would deal with a policeman. The public’s perception was different and the way they were interacting with either of those two was different; but within that organisation, I didn’t really see any kind of a disparity between how the roles were playing out. It seemed quite professional and fair.
Anjali Menon: That’s good to know because often we hear that it’s not always the same in different parts of our country.
But the whole idea that these two women had their own realities and how they had adjusted or not adjusted to it. J. Krishnamurti had said, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ When you’re appearing to be well adjusted, you’re actually adjusting to something which is completely abnormal. So, then, are you really normal or not? Those questions really come up.
I remember those scenes where the senior police officer is in her own home and the kind of power equation there. Those are fairly powerful scenes because they may appear to be seemingly ordinary but it’s not because you’re already watching the film from a certain lens and then they just jump out at you and then you have to acknowledge them and the kind of power equation that is imposed. How did you write those? What was your process?
Ivan Ayr: Usually what happens with personal situations or scenes that involve family is that you’re borrowing from your own life. So, these are things that I think even I might be guilty of from time to time, unknowingly. Saying things or unknowingly behaving a certain way with my mother or my wife. The writing process is healing in that sense, that you’re facing your own demons within you. You try to be more conscious of that, but as you said, they seem very ordinary, but they really cut through you. They’re humiliating.
When you have two professionals, having basically the same kind of qualifications, the same kind of background, the same kind of challenges in their work but they’re treated differently, it’s facing that and holding up a mirror to yourself, holding a mirror to your near and dear ones that’s challenging. But those conversations are also necessary.
The process was that I was borrowing from my own experiences. I don’t come from a police family, so there was a lot of extrapolating that was happening. I was aware of the fact that this is going to cause some kind of uneasiness and maybe result in different kinds of conversations within my own family. So I was prepared for that.
Anjali Menon: May your tribe increase!
Ivan Ayr: Yeah. It has made things better. This is something that I’ve kind of spoken about with the people who were involved in the film, actors and other crew members. This is something we have discussed after the film was released and the experience of watching it with your own family. Did they realise that maybe things had to be fixed within our homes first before we really expected systems to change? I think a lot of people had that shared experience of having an uncomfortable conversation.
Anjali Menon: That’s also the purpose of cinema, isn’t it? To provoke thought?
Ivan Ayr: Absolutely.
Anjali Menon: What was very interesting was how you kept it balanced, where a big serving of the patriarchy is also through the women themselves. You have the matriarch who is also serving it out. That was well put.
Ivan Ayr: Mohinder Kaur ji, who’s the actor, is very intelligent and she was aware of what her character was and basically how it was wrong in so many ways. Not in a bad way, but she knew wrong in a very sort of this insidious way which is not very apparent and obvious. She portrayed that character with the experiences that she herself had in her life. So she knew what we were trying to do and what she was supposed to play and portray. She was not the most positive character in the film, but she was taking that in good stride.
Anjali Menon: That’s great because I needed to understand the significance of it and then to be able to deliver that. It’s really special.
Ivan Ayr: It’s very true. It’s very true for society as well. We’ve talked about it with other women too. The problem is that patriarchy is very often imposed by the matriarchs. So that’s the most painful part of it.
Anjali Menon: I have to say that the way you’ve matched up the writing, your narrative, your actors, your performances, the cinematography, the design of your film, all of that, the mise-en-scene has a very mature touch for what is a first film. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your departments?
Ivan Ayr: I’d love to. I cannot praise them enough. Being there for the very first time, the hardest thing is to win people’s trust. It was an approach that was not new to a lot of them, so they weren’t exactly sure how it could be pulled off because usually when you have a frame you’re just focused on that limited portion of that space. So, when you’re doing an entire 360 and just going from one room to another and exploring it all in just one take, that requires a lot of preparation. So, shout out to the head of production design, Vipin (Kamboj), and the costume designer, Navjeet (Kaur), they were fantastic. And also Saloni and Geetika who actually rehearsed nonstop for hours and hours.
I’m so grateful that David Bolen actually agreed to do this film and stick to the technique that was, in my opinion, incredibly hard. Having to carry that camera for almost eight to 10 minutes on your shoulder, and sticking with the action and not really losing focus at any point, literally and also figuratively, and staying focused on the characters.
We even had sync sound throughout the film. Ajayan (Adat) and our boom operators were very crucial and key to getting the right kind of sound for each scene, because you have this constant dance between the cinematographer and the boom operator and the recordist when you’re going from one space to another.
I’ll run you through how our shoot days were. So, the first six hours out of a 12-hour shift were just rehearsing. Not even a single take would happen in the first six hours. It was purely about getting the space ready and working with the actors and all of the key people who were involved. We just had to rehearse it like we were rehearsing a play on a stage, where you have this space and you figure out what the blocking is going to be and how far the camera is going to be and how much space we’re going to have in this room versus this room and where things had to be hidden.
We had done some workshops before the shoot but even during the shoot, each day, six-seven hours were just set aside for rehearsals so that the expectations were clear to everyone that we were not going to shoot anything.
Anjali Menon: If you don’t mind, let’s break those six hours down as well. So, you get to your location. Have your actors seen your location before that?
Ivan Ayr: In most cases, yes. Sometimes there are locations that we were able to get only last minute, but they were familiar with most locations.
Anjali Menon: So you’ve done some rehearsals, they know the script and they are familiar with what is expected of them. So, you’d spend some time blocking?
Ivan Ayr: Yes. The very first thing we do when we actually go there is a very quick rehearsal with just the DOP, the actors and the sound person. So, we all know which scene we’re going to be shooting today. That’s homework that’s already done. So we arrive at the location and take it from the top approach. So here we are, here’s what the character is doing and this is where the character is, so now how are the next four- or seven-minutes unfolding and how is this conversation happening?
This is like an anatomy of a scene, but let’s take, for instance, the scene where Soni is washing clothes and the bell rings and it’s the neighbour, Huma ji, who comes in and then they have a conversation. Then they are inside the bedroom, then in the kitchen and then back inside the bedroom, then the bell rings.
It was, ‘Start here. This is what you’re doing. This is where the camera is. This is a scene where we are going to be looking at the entire house, there’s not going to be any space, which is not going to be exposed.’ That’s clearly communicated to the art director so that they don’t make any assumptions that this part is not going to get exposed so I can store my stuff here and things like that.
We start with where the characters are going to be positioned first and then how they’re going to move, the pacing at which they’re going to follow their steps throughout the scene and then we figure out what’s the best place to hide stuff – boom mikes and things like that – and what the best place would be for me to observe all of this. In the very first hour, everybody knows their lines and knows exactly who’s coming on when.
It’s very much like theatre actually. This is where somebody with a strong background in theatre actually helps. Most often, the actors are just having fun with the technical side of things. They have to use a lot of their imagination and do this brainstorming with me to figure out, ‘What you’re imagining, is this even possible? Because the kitchen only has this much space, so how are we going to fit everything here? Where am I going to be?’ Things get adjusted over the next five or six hours, but the first hour or two is just the actors knowing what they’re supposed to do, knowing they’re supposed to move from point A to point B, exit and then come into frame.
Then the next two or three hours is figuring whether we can really film this? Thankfully, with modern technology, the cameras are small enough that they can be carried on your shoulders, but still whether two people, three people can even fit inside this tiny little space and if not, then what’s the best way.
Anjali Menon: I’m curious about the number of takes.
Ivan Ayr: Well, surprisingly, the most complex scenes, like the one I described, that is almost like a seven, seven and a half minute scene within her house only took six to eight takes. It’s funny. The scenes that you expect would take the longest are not that hard. I think everybody is aware of the level of difficulty. They understand how well-prepared they need to be. I think people take things very lightly when scenes seem very simple to execute on the surface and that tends to result in 20, 30, 40 takes even.
But most of the longer scenes were under 10 or 12 takes.
Anjali Menon: That’s excellent. As a maker, when you’re writing something, at a certain point you decide that this is my content and this is the form in which I’m going to tell it. During the making of it, was there any doubt that this is the right form to tell the story? Were you ever questioning yourself or were you ever feeling like you were sort of shape-shifting too much to just fit into the form? Did any of that kind of doubt creep in at any stage?
Ivan Ayr: Actually no, I never really had any doubt about whether I wanted to do it this way. That I was very certain about. I don’t mind failing, but this is precisely how I would like to go about this film.
But at the time of pre-production, after this experience, is when I actually made the decision of doing this in single shots. I mean, one shot for one space. It did seem, at the time, to even senior members of the crew, like a very formulaic structure. ‘Is this even necessary?’ But, for me, it was very, very important because I wanted to convey my experience of observing how things worked.
I was also aware that this was going to be something that might turn some people off because there are moments in a film where you actually want to cut to a specific reaction or you want to cut to a specific thing in the frame or in a space. But here I thought that because it’s about these two characters, then as long as I’m following these two characters, as long as I’m exploring the spaces with them, I would be able to achieve my goal of inviting the audience to place themselves in their shoes. That was the whole idea.
Anjali Menon: You’ve done it beautifully. There are other examples of such films where we’ve seen this, but I have to admit some of them seem very laboured as well. But here you had a very interesting mix of technique and performances where sometimes when I was keen to be closer to a character that was happening organically. That kind of fluidity in the frame really permitted that. At the same time, not compromising the whole observational quality about the whole narrative, which was the very fine line that you got right.
Ivan Ayr: There’s a bit of luck involved there. We were all working very hard to make sure that it was actually working, that we were not doing it just because of someone’s whim, that we were actually executing things in this way.
But the film has a lot of tension and because of this technique, everybody was on their toes all the time. So the tension actually got elevated in every scene. That helped because everybody knew how crucial it was. We didn’t have the luxury of going this far, and then, all right, we’ve gone this far, so let’s cut and then we’ll start from here. So, everyone knew that if things go wrong when we are 80-90% of the way through we would have to go all the way back. So, that just created an organic tension and the reactions become organic as well. The whole realism in the film was highlighted in a very beautiful way.
Anjali Menon: One would like to laud that decision because it works for the film. At the end of the day, that is what really matters. And it’s proven so right that you carried it into Milestone as well.
Ivan Ayr: Not for the entire film. I think that would have been unfair to both films.
Anjali Menon: There is also a lot of value in that kind of approach, right? There are things which are very different about films, both being on completely different subjects, but there is a signature, of that observational quality, of that intimacy. Those are aspects that come with you as a filmmaker. It’s too early for me to tell since you’re just two films old but that signature is strong. As a member of the audience, I was welcoming it having had one good experience. I was very happy to follow him around the track and walk around all over the place. It just felt like I was at home and the person’s leading me to where I have to go. So, tell me about Meel Patthar (Milestone).
Ivan Ayr: We’re entering a very different universe with this film. It’s a huge departure from what I did previously with Soni. But, the idea of sticking with a character and then exploring that character’s world through their perspective, that approach and that kind of idea seemed like it would work in this one as well because it’s a very personal story, it’s about the human experience, we are going beyond just the occupation of that character – ‘Okay, this is what the character does.’ – but we’re going beyond that.
But I felt that this had to be more introspective. It was just something that the story was yelling at me – to keep in mind that this is more about reflection, this is more about the past and more about the decisions that you have already taken and where you find yourself in life. So, in that sense, it was very different from Soni. And for that reason, I thought we have to have those shots where we’re actually not just exploring the space with the character but we also have to sit with the character and then take very close range shots of characters pondering something or reacting to certain moments.
So that connection with the character was built with that approach of following him through spaces. But at times, if you wanted to understand or feel what the character was feeling, it was important to actually just have an entire frame occupied with just the face of the character because I also felt that here the character of Ghalib is passive in a lot of ways. We see things happening through his perspective but I think he’s responding to a lot of the conversations rather than actively initiating those conversations. The closest thing that comes to mind is Murakami’s characters. Even when they’re in a conversation with somebody, you mostly see them passively responding. It’s very rare that they are driving a certain conversation.
Because I was aware that this character is a little passive, I knew that in order to make that connection, there’ll be moments where I’ll have to just stay on him at a very close range and invite people to think about what the character might be thinking at this point. So in that sense, there was a slightly different technique that we followed for bits of the film.
Anjali Menon: I think it’s a very brave choice to have a passive main character. It’s not an easy thing, ever. And it’s very different from your characters in Soni. That’s a very different journey. But also this is a portrayal of loss, and so much is hung up in the past, and to portray someone who’s gone through that loss and capture his present with that observational style is quite an intense experience. It’s not an easy manifestation of what he’s feeling. There’s a complexity there, which is delicious to sit and watch, and I’m sure to film as well, having that very upfront, very intimate gaze on this character, almost like he’s under the microscope and we’re with him all the way through. There is a certain passivity which even those long takes go hand in hand with how his character is – he seems to go seamlessly from one place to the other. And then when you have a cut, it’s almost violent. I’m curious about the writing of Milestone. Was it any different?
Ivan Ayr: The writing of Milestone was definitely less chaotic than the writing of Soni because of the lessons I had learned from the previous experience. I had edited Soni as well and I’d known from that experience what had worked. I knew what looked very appealing on paper, but when actually shot and edited, what kind of things actually didn’t work and were left out.
That experience helped me write Milestone in a way that I didn’t really have to write too much. When I was working on a certain idea, I knew whether this was going to fly or not. So, the process was much shorter. It took less than a year. The number of revisions was also fewer. In Soni’s case, I was exploring a world that I had absolutely no idea about – I don’t have anyone from the police in my family. In this case, I do have extended family who have been in that occupation and now in the transportation business. So, there were conversations and experiences that they had shared with me over time and this was something I knew that I was going to work on at some point in my life. Perhaps, I had not expected the timing, but the familiarity with the world, to some extent, and also the lessons from the previous project, both help streamline the process for this one.
Anjali Menon: I really liked how this is such a microcosm of a world, and even within that you’ve managed to get a completely different community in, and the energy of that is very interesting. I really liked that kind of aspect to it.
Do tell me a little bit more about the editing space. Be it Milestone or Soni, to be able to, first, sit and write all of it and then to direct all of it and then bring it back to the editing table and have to bring it together yourself. Tell us about that.
Ivan Ayr: As an editor, I usually try to keep everything I’ve shot. So, my first director’s cut mirrors the script exactly. Basically, everything that was written was shot and presented exactly in that format and that sequence. And then after that, I start with minor changes which as a creator you know is better.
Then I definitely need somebody to challenge my narrative. So after I have prepared an initial cut, I usually like to invite a consulting editor to challenge that narrative. It’s the same in the process of writing as well. Once I’m done with my set of drafts, my version of it, I like to bring in a co-writer to challenge that narrative and maybe reimagine certain things. In Soni’s case, it was Kislay and in Milestone’s case, it was Neel Mani Kant.
I invite somebody who might or might not be familiar with the film and let them have a look and just see if they have feedback for me. In Soni’s case, it was Gurvinder (Singh), a Punjabi filmmaker, one of the people I admire very deeply. I think he was one of the first people, who did not participate in the film, who was the first one to actually look at it and then give feedback. He has a consulting editor credit on the film, and he actually helped that process a lot.
Because of the experiences of the previous project, those learnings were incorporated into the editing of this film. So, here the feedback was not as strong. The consulting editor was the producer Kimsi (Singh) herself. She was the one who gave me feedback on the cut, but it wasn’t as harsh as the first one.
Things were surprisingly smoother with this one. It’s like you have a second child, you know how to deal with things so you don’t repeat the same mistakes. There were certain film programmers who were very kind enough to give feedback on initial cuts. I sometimes like to show a polished cut to them, get their thoughts and see where things stand and then make the changes if I think I can make any changes.
Anjali Menon: As they say, a film is being made until those credits roll. At every stage, the feedback one gets in some way is incorporated or rejected. Those decisions are happening right till the end.
We’ve seen an evolution that has happened from Soni to Milestone. I’d be very excited to see where you’re going next because it’s beautiful to see how you’re using your own technique and you’re creating your own narrative and doing it with so much integrity as a filmmaker. I really enjoyed both films.
Ivan Ayr: Thank you so much. The admiration is the same from my end towards your work, and I’m waiting to see your next film as well.
Smriti Kiran: Anjali, Ivan, thank you so much for taking out time to do this.