Indian film-maker Ivan Ayr’s slow-burn drama Soni (2019) impressively portrays two female police women’s day in day out battles against normalized discrimination and sexism. That kind of description may make it sound like a familiar set-up for sermonizing against the ills of patriarchy. But Soni is incredibly nuanced to give in to rhetoric. It’s packed with strong performances and raw energy that foregrounds the intensity of the situation to provide an immersing viewing experience. Set in the capital city Delhi, the film eventually pushes us to ponder over a hard reality: if these educated, empowered young women have to put up with such humiliations (or attacks on self-esteem) on a daily basis, think of the condition of women denied such things in this country; or in the whole-wide world (of course, someone well indoctrinated into the patriarchal dogma would argue that all these problems have risen because the women are educated and empowered).
Despite a little ungainly episodic structure, Soni gains its visceral energy through the long, tracking shots (mostly shot in single-takes) that effectively builds up the characters’ conflicted emotions while never losing sight of the vicious realities at its core. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan plays the titular character, a young police officer working on the dark alleyways of Delhi to expose sexual abuse and harassment, whose inclination to not take crap from people, especially from the verbally abusive men, often puts her at odds with the superiors. In the opening scene, Soni is seen riding a bicycle in the calm, nighttime streets of Delhi. She is followed by a man on bicycle, attempting to gain female attention in the most improper way. Soni asks him to stop it, but when he doesn’t seem to relent she beats him up before getting stopped by other police officers on the beat.
Soni works under the supervision of Kalpana (Saloni Batra). The camaraderie existing between them transcends the boundaries of workplace hierarchy. Kalpana is married to a police officer (Mohit Chauhan) higher-up in the chain, who belittles her at every chance he gets for showing leniency towards Soni. The situation shown in the opening scene repeats itself (with few minor changes) throughout Soni’s professional life. An inebriated man (a Navy officer, he claims) at regular traffic stop makes a pass at her which results in an altercation. She knocks on the restaurant restroom for women, only to find three men smoking weed. One of the men antagonizes her so much that she slaps him and the ensuing scuffle leaves Soni under more troubles. Is Soni too reckless for a police officer? That’s up for debate. But the men she confronts on duty feel they naturally have a higher authority to disrespect her. Their deep-seated misogyny always rears its head, irrespective of the uniform she wears.
Soni’s personal life also seems to be under strain as she refuses to take back her inept, irresponsible ex-husband, Naveen (Vikas Shukhla). Compared to Soni, Kalpana seems to be part of wealthy, peaceful household, living with her husband and mother-in-law. But at regular family gatherings, people insistently question about when she is going to have a child, attached with a warning that her biological clock may run out. Kalpana hears her favorite 13-year-old niece talk about an appalling thing that suggests how the disdainful attitude towards female cuts through class boundaries. And if all this sounds merely provocative, I can assure you that it isn’t, because Ivan Ayr’s narrative has an honesty and spontaneity to it that makes it feel unique and hard-hitting.
The script by Ivan Ayr and Kislay Kislay meticulously incorporates wide-reaching thematic layers within its narrow, visual perspective. The PM of the market-friendly democracy calls for its citizens to embrace science. The local government comes up with populist policies that in the name of providing safety to women actually segregate them. What’s the use of science and special taxis in a society which still hasn’t learned to treat women as their equal?The sexism is so internalized on a personal and systemic level that the narrative smartly avoids condemning just a set of people. Ayr and cinematographer David Bolen have done a good job in detailing the women’s lives through unobtrusive observations of their frustrations and internal struggles as they move between domestic and professional spaces. In one unbroken, tracking shot, the camera follows Soni through her regular patrol on a cold night. She sees men gathered around a fire carrying on with their casually misogynist chatter and wordlessly walks back, questioning the relevance of her job. Perhaps, the film wouldn’t possess such raw power if not for the two superb central performances. Both Ohlyan and Batra brilliantly express the emotional conflicts without a touch of dramatics.
For all its depiction of unwarranted pressure heaped upon working women, Soni doesn’t restrict itself as an acerbic social drama. The friendship between Soni and Kalpana radiates with compassion and humanity. Their solidarity and doggedness imbues the narrative with essential optimism, enunciating the need to stand the ground and not yield to the full force of sexism. Towards the end, Kalpana gifts Soni the memoir of author Amrita Pritam titled ‘Revenue Stamp’; named so due to the jibe that the writer’s life is so ‘inconsequential’ to be accommodated on the back of a revenue stamp. Similarly, Soni’s story-line could be confined to a very small piece of paper, but its observations are deeply thoughtful and far-reaching.