It wasn’t until Karan Soni was getting ready to premiere “7 Days” at Tribeca Film Festival that he asked himself, “What did we make?”
Not even a year prior, he and his partner – director Roshan Sethi – conceived of the idea for a romantic comedy about twentysomething Indian Americans Ravi (Soni) and Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan), whose pre-arranged date goes from bad to worse when they’re forced to spend a week quarantining together.
In just five days, Soni and Sethi whipped together a script and got to work assembling a cast and crew, getting the Duplass Brothers to produce and choosing an Airbnb for the set. True to its title, the film took about a week to shoot. No wonder Soni hadn’t had a chance to catch his breath.
Ironically, the hyperspeed project was born from a period of soul-crushing inertia. In June 2020, the actor found himself in the midst of a COVID-induced crisis.
“I was in a very existential dread of being like, ‘Should I consider another career?’ Because at that point, it felt like how are we ever going to do this job in person? There’s no way you can be on a set and socially distance,” he told TheWrap in a recent interview. “And I was craving [to do something] creative, so badly.”
So Sethi came up with a simple solution: “‘Let’s just write something, and if it feels good and exciting, then we’ll maybe just find a way to make it on our own.’”
The pair knew that if they wanted to shoot during COVID, they had to limit the script to one or two actors and locations. In return, the pandemic supplied a logical explanation for why the characters would stick together after such a lousy first date. Ravi puts Rita off with his awkward banter and meticulous life plans; he’s equally repelled after he walks in on Rita drinking, eating meat and talking on the phone with someone she calls “Daddy,” pulling back the curtain on her “traditional girl” act. To say the least, they’re each other’s quarantine buddies from hell.
With only two characters (save for some Zoom and phone cameos) commanding the film’s 86-minute runtime, casting was a matter of make-or-break importance. Soni, who considers himself a performer at heart, was always going to play Ravi. For Rita, they had only one choice: the person they’d had in mind while writing the role, Geraldine Viswanathan.
Soni and Viswanathan had been close friends since they started co-starring in the TBS comedy “Miracle Workers” in 2017. Still, Soni acknowledges that it was a big ask.
“It’s one thing [for Sethi and I to do it] because we co-wrote it, like, this is our baby so we’ll do whatever [it takes] – blood, sweat, tears – to make it,” he said. “It’s another thing to [say to] someone else, ‘We’re not gonna pay you a lot of money, will you risk working at this time?’”
Luckily, Viswanathan was game. “I just fell in love with the script and had a really good instinct about it,” she recalled. “I was also really excited to collaborate on something again and be in a room with people.”
Although filming during the pandemic was a “risk,” she felt safe in the hands of her friends. It helped that Sethi was also an oncologist who had recently completed his residency at a Boston COVID ward, ensuring that he would handle the subject with sensitivity.
Her offscreen friendship with Soni proved vital during the lightning-fast shoot. “I think just knowing each other really well and having that kind of shorthand and easy banter made it really easy when we were shooting like 15 pages a day, and we would get like one or two takes to do a scene,” she said. “I think it would have been really difficult if we were unfamiliar with each other.”
Soni agreed, praising his co-star for her talent and willingness to embrace the “no frills” shoot: think no trailers, a 123 degree heatwave, and zero air conditioning on set. He drew on the advice he received from Mark and Jay Duplass early into pre-production: “‘These kinds of movies only work if everyone knows what they’re making, which is that this is not something where you’ll make a lot of money upfront. You might once the movie sells, but you’re doing this for the love of doing this job,’” they told him. “‘Hire crew and cast members who know what they’re signing up for, and then it will be pure joy.’”
That approach to filmmaking embodies what “7 Days” is really about: exploring and celebrating, as Viswanathan puts it, “unlikely connections in unlikely times.” It’s a theme that applies as much to COVID as it does to the film’s other major focus that she, Sethi and Soni were all eager to explore.
“[Arranged marriage] is a topic that we all have been wanting to talk about, from this perspective of actually having a connection with it and an experience with it,” said Viswanathan.
Her grandparents were arranged, as were both Sethi’s and Soni’s parents. In Indian culture it remains common, despite lacking representation in mainstream media.
“It’s just a different way of looking at love [from] the more Western Hollywood thing [of] love at first sight and happily ever after,” said Soni.
In an arranged marriage, he explained, the script is flipped: practical matters like family, lifestyle and living compatibility come first, followed by a love connection. For the filmmakers, bringing this tradition into a modern setting – Rita and Ravi are set up through an arranged dating website – was a way of correcting misconceptions where they could.
“We definitely wanted to show that it can work, and it’s not this archaic, old school thing,” Soni said. “We just wanted to show another aspect of it so that maybe if someone comes in with someone who had an arranged marriage, you won’t have these preconceived notions that they must be miserable, or it must have been this awful thing they were forced into. Like, maybe it did work for them.”
There’s proof in the “When Harry Met Sally”-style interviews with arranged married couples that feature throughout the film. Like the central characters in that classic rom-com, these couples make for amusing companions to Rita and Ravi as their dynamic progresses from awkwardness to familiarity, from distrust into a slow-burning tenderness.
The connection they forge inside their bubble of isolation – free of interference from outsiders or normal life – is the unique confluence of culture and circumstance.
“Arranged marriages require patience, because you are having to readjust many expectations. And that’s sort of what has happened with a lot of people [during] COVID,” Soni said. “When the world stopped, a lot of things came to light. There were so many social movements, and then so much time for people to finally stop and be like, ‘Am I happy with what I’m doing?’”
“I think that’s so relevant for these characters,” he continued. “If this was just a normal date, if COVID never happened, they wouldn’t connect or they would have just never spoken to each other again. But they were suddenly forced to be like, ‘Okay, all these stories I told myself about what I want in a partner – is it really what I want, and have I looked beyond that?’ And so it felt like it perfectly fit into all of that.”
Are people ready to watch a film about the early days of the pandemic – and a romantic comedy, at that?
At first, Viswanathan was unsure. “But then I read the script and honestly, it kind of fell away for me a little bit,” she said. “It just felt so light and sweet and funny that it didn’t feel like this big, heavy thing.”
Soni never worried about how “7 Days” would be received – not when he and Sethi started writing the script as a creative outlet and not when it started making its way around the festival circuit. So far, the film community has given it a warm reception; in March, “7 Days” won Best First Feature at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.
“I think in many ways, when the film works, it’s a catharsis for acknowledging what we’re all still going through,” he said. “[It’s] something we’ve really felt at screenings in person at least, where people are like, ‘I can laugh at this in a way that it’s allowing us to.’”
“7 Days” is now playing in select theaters and will be available for viewing on demand April 26.