Director: Ivan Ayr
Cast: Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Saloni Batra
Streaming on: Netflix
“How is your Phoolan Devi now? Has she calmed down?” This question, in jest, is directed at a woman named Kalpana (a superbly understated Saloni Batra) in her own living room. A man, her husband’s friend, is asking about one of her hot-headed employees named Soni (the outstanding Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), a girl who routinely challenges the entitlement of the quintessential Delhi male. He derisively means “feminist” but decides to play down the seriousness of the term – “these girls grow up in households where there is a lot of violence”. Kalpana politely smiles and hands him a cup of tea. For a split-second, she seems to reflect on the irony of associating an Indian woman’s spunk with the legacy of a rebellious female bandit. He has perhaps cut uncannily close to the bone: Soni, too, not unlike the bandit, is a product of an unsuccessful marriage, and the way she is reacting at work is nothing less than a “crime” for startled men. Never mind that her career is based on fighting crime. In this moment, Soni is not a sub-inspector and Kalpana does not feel like a Superintendent of Police. Soni, instead, is just another disgruntled divorcee with anger issues, while Kalpana is merely the apologetic wife of a man who is a newly promoted Crime Branch bigshot.
On the back of such astutely observed scenes and unflinchingly lived-in performances, first-time director Ivan Ayr constantly poses some unnerving questions: What is the point of defying the expectations of society when a male-dominated law enforcement system, too, perceives its female inhabitants as women who are only role-playing between existing as wives and daughters? If females in the ultimate position of power cannot escape the intrinsic perversions of patriarchy, what hope is there for the rest of them? Is feminism an ideological construct coined only to transcend the domestic labels of womanhood?
Soni, a film tonally reminiscent of Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, doesn’t feel the need to manufacture a story to drive home its message. It trusts the organic distrustfulness of the world as it stands; it refrains from dramatizing, or even reminding viewers of its chosen medium. An example is a scene between Soni and her estranged husband – one whose dialogues would normally be “constructed” with phrases to inform the viewer of precisely why they broke up. Here, apart from the word ‘operation’ in a series of quiet reactions, the exchange explicitly reveals nothing. And yet it reveals everything; they are simply two people expressing pain to each other, unrestrained by the confines of storytelling and exposition. The camerawork reflects this gaze. Every scene is a shot as a long, unbroken single take, as if to suggest that cutting from one angle to another is an act of manipulation that demands a change of perspective. And alternate perspectives, especially in the case of gender inequality, are a luxury Soni refuses to afford.
Instead, the film introduces – and examines – two characters who are best placed to highlight the singularity of the narrative that has existed for ages. The relationship between Soni and her upper-class superior, Kalpana, is designed as an expression that contextualizes the contradictions pervading their day-to-day battles. Their household routines are interspersed with their nights on the job. But while there is no visible distinction between the younger woman’s attitude at home and work, a trait she is often chastised for by her mentor, you sense that Kalpana, too, wishes she could wear her uniform at home in order to be accorded a level of individuality and respect by her high-flying husband. Though the writing suggests that Soni respects Kalpana and aspires to be like her, it is actually Kalpana who secretly envies Soni for her unpretentious gait. She grudgingly recognizes that, despite empathizing with the younger woman, her own existence relies on her ability to resist becoming another Soni. She is on the same path, but she doesn’t have the courage to be as “weak” and reckless as Soni.
Soni, a film tonally reminiscent of Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, doesn’t feel the need to manufacture a story to drive home its message
The power dynamic of Soni and Kalpana’s situation is best reflected in that of Newton’s Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) and Commandant Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi); Singh, too, quietly admired Newton for his sheer sense of idealism in a crooked world. But notice the difference – Singh could afford to be disdainful of the young man, while Kalpana considers it her responsibility to protect and band together with Soni in whatever capacity she can. The men are up against a sociopolitical system, but the women are up against the fundamental culture that breeds these sociopolitical systems; Anjali Patil’s character in Newton is in fact more emblematic of the atmosphere that Soni so expertly dissects.
One of the film’s early scenes signifies how the two women, despite their inherent differences, are obligated to occupy the same side. Late into the night, they witness some lewd male constables moral policing a young couple. They quietly watch, as the men bully the couple to earn a quick buck. It’s only when one of them taunts the boy for using the girl’s wallet – “How impotent are you, taking money from a lady?” – that Kalpana jumps out of the shadows to intervene. Misogyny, outside of her own four walls, infuriates her. It was Soni’s idea to navigate this shady area, perhaps as a deliberate ploy to expose her boss to the kind of horrors that might provoke her. Kalpana’s reaction somewhat reassures Soni. At which point we might even wonder – Is Soni the kind of person who actively seeks out trouble so that she can unleash her fury as a twisted form of therapy? Does she cycle through dark streets in the hope of finding an opportunity to project her pent-up angst onto men who deserve it? Is Soni, the character, more haunted than the film? If these are the three questions we walk away with, the fourth one might just involve a cheap Phoolan Devi reference.