On a dark and deserted lane on a Delhi winter night, a lone and vulnerable looking woman is hurrying on her bicycle. On hot pursuit is a lecherous man who is jeering at her. As they turn into an even darker alley, Soni dismounts and confronts the sleaze. He tells her “Itni garmi, paas aao thoda mujhe bhi de do”. It’s an extremely uncomfortable moment that makes you squirm in your seat – this cannot turn out well for the woman. Fortunately, Soni is not one of those movies. Instead, it turns out that our eponymous protagonist is a sub-inspector on a decoy mission to lure in this very man. Losing her cool, she starts hitting him, at which point the rest of her team comes running in.
Soni is director Ivan Ayr’s debut feature film. It is an understated slice of life drama that captures the professional and private lives of two women police officers – Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) and her superintendent Kalpana Ummat (Saloni Batra) navigating their way through the patriarchal structures of everyday life. Inspired by the furor over the Jyoti Singh Pandey case in 2012, Ayr presents a cold, grim and dystopian Delhi (rather like real-life) where misogyny seems to lurk at every corner.
The emotional core of the movie is about the struggle of being a woman with some amount of power in a world rife with misogyny. Soni is good at her job, yet her gender trumps all her other qualities while she is trying to do it. For instance, when a drunken naval officer is being difficult when stopped at a police check naka, a junior officer who is unable to handle him on his own calls Soni to deal with him. Soni convinces him to give her his ID, but throughout the interaction, the man taunts her with sexually explicit remarks. Finally, her anger turns into blows, and she has to be led away by her juniors.
Soni’s physical outbursts of anger are especially relatable in this post #Metoo era of collective female rage. And yet, however well deserved, they obviously do not sit well with the hierarchical police force. While Soni may be quick to anger, Kalpana brings empathy to her job as an ACP. She is repeatedly berated for this by her husband, the Commissioner, who tells her she is too soft-hearted. It is interesting to see how conventional notions of masculine and feminine traits are hinted at in this context. Is authoritarianism the only way to lead? Or are perceptiveness and nuance important to deal with employees in highly stressful jobs?
Ayr presents a cold, grim and dystopian Delhi (rather like real-life) where misogyny seems to lurk at every corner.
While they are respected at their work, the two women do face sexism in their daily lives. Throughout the movie, Kalpana’s male juniors refer to her as Sir, suggesting their internal dissonance with her high rank and gender. At home, her in-laws pressure her for children and complain about her long working hours. On the other hand, Soni is trying (hardly) to pick up the pieces of her marriage with an incompatible husband – Naveen. It doesn’t help that when her house is attacked, he tries convincing her to take him back by implying that she needs a man in the house. Him, a struggling businessman: she, a feisty police sub-inspector.
What makes Soni stand out is its raw and realistic portrayal of two women. Each scene is filmed in one continuous shot, and the unobtrusive camerawork makes the audience feel as if they’ve been provided a window into the lives of the characters. A seemingly simple subject matter, but one that audiences have long been starved from. Ayr does not glorify his female characters, and with their various flaws, they retain their multi-dimensionality throughout the film.
Kalpana and Soni’s camaraderie of mentor and mentee (a rare relationship for women on screen), especially in the backdrop of a male-dominated system, is highly gratifying for feminist sensibilities. This is particularly potent when Kalpana visits Soni after one of the latter’s raging episodes. She hands her, her own copy of Amrita Pritam’s autobiography Revenue Ticket. When Soni asks her why the book is called so, Kalpana replies that a fellow author had belittled Pritam saying that there was not much in her life to turn into a book, and whatever little there was, could fit at the back of a tiny revenue ticket. It’s a self-aware moment in Soni the movie, where the movie itself epitomises the attention that women’s narratives are finally receiving.
Ayr does not glorify his female characters, and with their various flaws, they retain their multi-dimensionality throughout the film.
As cinema updates with the times, women characters with substantive parts are becoming a growing phenomenon. Watching Soni with this expectation will leave you well satisfied.
As I walked out of Soni, I couldn’t help wondering if the movie would have been different (better) if it had a woman director. While movies with women protagonists are few, those directed by women are fewer still. Why don’t we have women telling such stories? This was ironically answered for me, as I tried my luck at the stand-in-line for the next screening. Ahead of me was an actress who had featured in a recent movie.
I asked her why she hadn’t pre-booked a seat, she replied that she didn’t find time in the mornings because she had a two-year-old child and was too busy in the mornings to book tickets. Meanwhile, her husband had a gold pass and was already sitting inside, and she had forfeited the extra gold pass to her father. Later, when a friend asked if she’d managed to catch a morning screening, she said the babysitter only arrived at noon so it wasn’t possible. Nonetheless, she was a true aficionado so she stood in line for hours to get into movies. In the end, we didn’t get into that movie. And I couldn’t help think that if there are so many barriers to women watching a movie, how many does one have to overcome to direct one?
Soni won the Oxfam Best Film on Gender Equality Award 2018 at the MAMI Film Festival.
Featured Image Source: The Hindu