In every society, education serves as a vital tool for bringing about gender parity and catalysing national development. But despite being well educated, the two female police officers in the Hindi film Soni (2018) must fight to earn a righteous spot in their social circles. The name “Soni” is most widely used in Punjab, synonymous with someone who is pretty, beautiful, loving. But the titular character in Ivan Ayr’s film has a hotheaded personality, as she’s quick to become angry when someone challenges her resilience. Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) is a young police officer in New Delhi and confronts the crime rate against women, with the assistance of her superintendent, Kalpana (Saloni Batra). As the film’s events unfold, the female alliance suffers a major setback.
Soni opens with a cheeky cyclist verbally harassing a woman riding a bicycle. But when the man crosses the line of decency and makes unwanted advances, the woman gives him a pounding. The female character is revealed to be the protagonist Soni, a young and determined policewoman who acts as the bait in police sting operations. So, from the beginning of the film, the director presents a world that is inimical to women, especially in Delhi. The two leading females establish a force to flush out men who commit violence against women under the veil of darkness, and background radio news highlights the inherent threats. When Soni is transferred for loosing her temper with an inebriated Navy officer, she receives a prank call at the police helpline. It’s obvious that the caller is flirting, but as the conversation ends, the simile on Soni’s face indicates that she has normalized traditional gender roles.
Indian-themed films have always created and reinforced perceptions and attitudes about socio-political characters. Despite being independent and educated women, Soni and Kalpana cannot unfetter themselves from the patriarchy — they must negotiate. Soni goes about her chores alone. Her helpful female neighbour remarks on how she’s not eating properly, and repeatedly tries to persuade her to reconcile with her estranged husband, a man who has failed at almost everything. Time and again, he keeps visiting Soni with the unending hope for reunion. Similarly, Kalpana is also under pressure for supposedly neglecting her maternal duties and work obligations. Even her relatives suggest that it’s time she had a baby. At one point, Soni’s cooking cylinder runs out of gas, and she must depend on junk food to pacify her pangs of hunger during the night shifts. Kalpana catches the attention of her colleague’s unhealthy eating habits and orders a constable to arrange for a cylinder. This particular scene speaks volumes about the importance of domesticity and proper meals. Meaning, the protagonists are pitted against the self-worth of a male-dominated society. Even though local and national policies are undergoing serious changes in order to prevent widespread violence against women, attitudes at work, and at home, haven’t changed much. Being a woman alone, or a woman without a child, is socially unacceptable. Incidentally, Soni raises an important question: are powerful Indian women still dominated by masculine pursuits?
In Ayr’s film, the bond between Soni and Kalpana shines through. When Soni crosses the line and puts her career in jeopardy, Kalpana comes to her rescue. She tries to convince her husband that her decoy operation will suffer a setback if her alliance with Soni is disrupted. Deep inside, though, she has developed a soft spot for Soni. As the film progresses, Kalpana gifts Soni with a copy of feminist-poet Amrita Pritam’s autobiography Revenue Stamp, and attempts to help with her personal life. The scene creates an atmosphere of constant rumbling persecution that contributes to the fact that although Indian women seek to have equality in the workplace and in the streets, women themselves remain extremely critical of other women. This particular scene bears a striking resemblance to Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya, one of India’s best cop dramas. In that film, Om Puri’s Anant takes Smita Patil’s Jyotsna to a fancy restaurant. She asks him how he can afford such an expensive place. He skirts the issue and reads a poem from her book, which is the theme poem by Dilip Chitre. It’s about getting caught in a labyrinth and not being able to extricate oneself.
Despite being a well-intentioned art house film, Soni somehow fails to create an impressionistic effect and often feels cliched. But what’s commendable is the character treatment by the debutant director, Ayr. Each scene is shot in one long take, a narrative device that draws viewers into the multilayered exteriority of the characters, and underlines their psychological state.
Soni is streaming on Netflix.
Dipankar Sarkar (@dipankarftii) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.