THERE IS A scene in Soni where a senior police officer casually shares a story with her subordinate about her grandmother over a cup of morning tea. This, after a long night shift where they were forced to police two constables who were indulging in mindless moral policing. She recounts that her grandmother was once suffering from an ear infection that needed surgery, which required shaving off a small patch of her hair. The grandmother refused to let that happen, and eventually died since the infection spread to the rest of her head. The writer here is trying to communicate the dire need for change in society. India’s latest Netflix offering, Soni is riddled with scenes such as this, which tell us much about our society without being shouty about it. This is restrained storytelling at its best, which neither patronises nor intimidates the viewer, but leaves her hooked instead.
Soni, which released online recently, not only starts conversations, but bleeds into our consciousness and stays there. A film about two women cops dealing with everyday power struggles and crime in Delhi, Soni has a unique quality, missing from much of mainstream Indian cinema. Subtlety. For a film about women in positions of power who are highly vulnerable to patriarchy, it simmers quietly through the lives of its protagonists, laying down their situation and letting us decide how affected we want to be by it. After being hailed as one of India’s finest Netflix films, we can say that we finally have a film that’s global not just in its reach and intent, but treatment too.
Soni’s writer and director Ivan Ayr tells us the story of women in India without embellishments, reminiscent of the cinema of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. It is a movie that reflects our times and the ferment in gender interactions without being preachy. “In 2014 (two years after the Nirbhaya case), I was watching a news debate where they were discussing steps being taken to make the city safer for women. Strangely, a policewoman was missing from this discussion. It’s when I started to think how we never think about them. I met many female cops in the capital, and I realised how as policewomen they cannot detach themselves from victims… because they understand. They are susceptible to the same crimes they are fighting because of their gender. It was a tussle of emotions there, and that’s when I felt I want to tell the story of a policewoman who has trouble separating her own feelings [from] the job,” says Ayr.
Director Ayr, and the two protagonists played by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan (Soni) and Saloni Batra (Kalpana), have lived much of their lives in and around Delhi. Ohlyan, who plays the title role, is from a liberal household in Haryana, but was conscious of the gender disparity around her. She says, “I grew up without the restrictions and inhibitions part of a regular girl’s life. I would sit and talk to a number of girls in school who would tell me how they sensed behaviour towards them was different. Discussions about the length of the skirt, women’s bodies and hair being controlled by people in the family, was a regular for me in third and fourth standard. I was brought up to be a smart and strong girl, and never a shy and beautiful one. But I realise that the vulnerabilities of being a woman stay with you, irrespective of who you are and what you do. When you are in a position of power, like Soni was, you can initiate change. But it’s that power that put her into trouble as well.”
I met many female cops in the capital, and I realised how as policewomen they cannot detach themselves from victims… because they understand, says Ivan Ayr, director, Soni
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Batra plays IPS officer Kalpana— the toughest and the most restrained character in the film—to perfection. Her performance is one of the strongest recent female debuts we’ve seen in India. She says, “I’ve experienced things myself in Delhi even if it was a lane away from home. After dark, nothing is safe. While living in Delhi, I had never felt the power and fearlessness I experienced playing Kalpana. Being on the streets at such odd hours, and that I had the power to put a man behind bars, and teach him a lesson for his misdemeanours and sick mindset was truly empowering.”
Almost every scene in Soni has been shot as one seamless take by cinematographer David Bolen. His camera follows the lives of the characters, never invading it, making us, the audience, observe without judgement. There is no background score in the film, proof of how the scenes stand by themselves, without external stimulation. The artwork is minimal and colour palette spans blues, browns and blacks, effectively painting the seething world that the film aims to create.
Ayr, who has been influenced by the cinema of Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami, wanted to control the inherent impulse of being aggressive in a film like this. He says, “The school of cinema I come from, it’s important for the characters to have that dignity of a human being, for the audience to empathise or want to stand up for them. I did not see any policemen or policewomen behave in a very aggressive manner unless they were on the street, and to assert themselves. It wouldn’t have worked if they were exploding all the time. They were doing these ‘heroics’ anyway, and their reactions hence had to be minimal and internal. Plus nobody in the film is a superhero. They are complicated humans who make mistakes and I wanted the audiences to question how they would react to similar situations.”
Soni fights casual sexism and eve- teasing, while Kalpana struggles to maintain the dignity of work in an imbalanced professional environment. The film clearly belongs to the two female actors who are sincere and transparent in their portrayals. It is to the director’s credit that the actors seem endowed with so much power. “It was emotionally exhausting to play Soni. She has no family support, or no gratification of simple needs, be it desire for food, or the bodily desire of being embraced. The character was so isolated in so many ways, yet was fighting at every single step. How do you not break down in a situation like that? That was my biggest challenge,” says Ohlyan.
The standout feature of the film is that its approach to gender and power is not black and white. Empowerment in movies such as Veere di Wedding and shows like Four Shots Please is simply reduced to sex, drugs, alcohol and male hating. In Soni, the idea of empowerment is far more nuanced. You see that men can also be victims of stereotypes and conditioning. Ohlyan says, “Soni is a girl who is in these dire circumstances, and is not clinging on to the man in her life. It was difficult to justify that choice she makes because it doesn’t happen so often. In my life, when I experienced an unwelcome touch for the first time, I remember my mother and grandmother saying that every man is a predator. It was much later that I realised that it’s not true, and I believed in the intrinsic goodness of people, unless they prove otherwise.”
Women from across the globe have written to the makers of Soni that the film has touched them, proving how a local story can have global appeal. In a world where we only talk about punishing the perpetrator or saving the victim, Soni encourages us to look at every individual and situation with a sensitive and sensible eye.
Once the shoot was over, Ohlyan spent a couple of days close to her alma mater Delhi University. “I spent isolated time there in the room, all alone, wore my old comfort clothing, took walks in the campus, looked at people, policewomen, observed them. After this experience I think I have learnt to express my opinion more gently with more compassion because fear or ferociousness or anger weakens the person who is trying to make a point. It is stimulating people’s minds rather than titillating them. It makes me feel really proud of my film,” she says.