Review: ‘Soni’ Is a Fly-On-The-Wall Look at Gender, Sexism and Misogyny
On a chilly winter night, a woman is cycling on the streets of Delhi when she is followed by a man passing lecherous comments. Fed up of his behaviour, she suddenly stops and beats him up badly until she is held back by a group of people. The woman in question is Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), a policewoman who works undercover on the night shift as part of a decoy operation targeting crimes against women. She is accompanied by her superior Kalpana (Saloni Batra), an IPS officer.
Soni is a temperamental woman whose habit of acting before she thinks often gets her into trouble. Kalpana reprimands her but is also quick to defend Soni each time gets into trouble.
This is because she knows that Soni’s anger is justified. Like most women, she’s no stranger to sexism, harassment and internalised misogyny and in a way, it’s part and parcel of her job. In one instance when she asks two inebriated Navy officers to get out of their car, they retort by saying, “Are you married? Come, let’s celebrate!” In another, she walks in on a politician’s son and his friends consuming cocaine in a washroom. They say, “Arre aa jao aap jaisi khoobsurat ladki ke saath toh aur maza aayega (It’ll be more fun with a beautiful woman like you),” they say. In one particularly telling instance when a man calls the police helpline and asks for the policewoman’s number, she just laughs it off and says, “Thode aise bhi aa jaate hain (There are always a few strange men).” It’s a sort of coping mechanism that many women will find familiar—sometimes it’s just easier to shrug such instances off than to engage.
The highlight of the film is the relationship between the two women. Director Ivan Ayr gives us two realistic leads. Kalpana is firm but cares for the people who work with her, which often irks her husband (also an IPS officer) who tells her repeatedly to be more ‘aggressive’. Ayr alternates beautifully between their personal and professional lives.
Ayr also injects some humor in the form of Soni’s neighbour. Extremely concerned about her late nights and her whereabouts she tells her, “Beta zara sindoor daal lo, behtar hoga (Put on some sindoor, it always helps).” One sees how Soni neglects her health and house for the sake of her work, only to be reprimanded for her dedication to her job.
Ayr has also set the film in the winter of Delhi, the chilly, foggy weather accentuating the feeling of gloom. The frames are mostly dimly lit and in shades of blue.
By treating the subject in a subtle manner, the film quietly emphasises the chilling atrocities committed by men. When Naval officers or politician’s children behave badly, you just overlook it. These are things that we all know, but when we you see it you realise how we normalize such behavior. And this behaviour extends all the way down to your childhood. When Kalpana’s niece complains about being teased by boys for being on her periods, you realise why Soni has so much anger within. It’s because she’s been at the receiving end of bad behavior by men for so many years, and so have most women.
Ayr’s choice of not going ahead with known faces, benefits the film usually because it allows anyone to see themselves in these women. Both Saloni Batra and Geetika Vaidya are refreshingly natural and slip into their roles with ease. There’s one particular moment that stands out—when the two of them are sipping hot cups of tea on a cold night at a tea stall of Soni’s choice. Soni looks at Kalpana with eagerness to know if she liked the tea, it’s a subtle moment but shows the respect she has for her.
Soni is restrained and creates an atmosphere that might get your blood boiling but never reflects that aggression in the film itself. It’s an important film, and also my first at the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI), a choice I’m glad I made.