'Soni': Film Review | Mumbai 2018

A feminist viewpoint becomes as gripping as a TV police drama.

Two New Delhi policewomen grapple with sex offenders and gender inequality in a classic drama.

Soni, the story of two policewomen in New Delhi, proves the ideal vehicle to explore a wide variety of issues related to gender battles in contemporary Indian society, even while following many of the genre tropes that make police dramas so universally beloved. Ivan Ayr’s feature film debut has it both ways. The issues at stake will naturally find their greatest appeal with female audiences, but the writing and characterizations are fine enough for wider viewing. After bowing at the Venice Film Festival in the Horizons section, this Netflix presentation has cruised through London and Mumbai in a fast festival start.

The strength of the film is its appealing characters brought to life by strong actresses. Young cop Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) has a difficult relationship with her commanding officer Kalpana (Saloni Batra), and both women have awkward personal situations with men in their lives.

On the job, they are committed members of a “decoy op” aimed at rounding up stalkers and rapists who terrorize women in Delhi’s streets and parks after dark. In the opening sequence, a girl is cycling home one night when she realizes she’s being followed by a guy on another bike. His lewd remarks about the “hottie” in front of him seem about to escalate into an attack. She pulls to a stop and faces him down. Then, losing control, she beats him up. This is Soni under cover, and her use of fisticuffs (which in any other Indian film would be a laughably mild form of police intervention) is a big no-no. Kalpana, her supervisor, comes running with backup officers, but they are much more put out by Soni than her would-be attacker.

Maybe this is the classic double standard in action, but it doesn’t seem very realistic. In any case, Soni gets called on the carpet and demoted to the police call center. In a telling scene that reveals how nothing is sacred with sexism, the policewoman showing her the ropes gets hit on by a male caller. The other officer just laughs it off, but the dour Soni is clearly not in the mood.

Her love life has come to an abrupt halt and she lives alone in a modest apartment, ever since her ex (possibly her husband) Naveen (Vikas Shukla) did something to make her kick him out. He crawls back to her throughout the film in some awkward TV-style scenes, but her heart is immovable.

Meanwhile, Kalpana’s home life suffers from her devotion to duty. Her police chief husband, Sandeep (Mohit Chauhan), seems all right with the fact she’s never at home and they haven’t had a baby yet (an event fervently desired by her mother-in-law). But he often reminds her that she mustn’t let herself be swayed by emotion. “Why be a cop if you’re not going to act like one?” She has to be strict with her subordinates like Soni if she expects them to follow her orders.

This proves to be exactly the problem: She gets Soni out of scrapes, but the younger woman stubbornly ignores the golden rule not to fly off the handle with men at work. At an accident scene, Soni’s patience is tested to the limit by a drunk navy officer behind the wheel of a big car who pulls rank and threatens her with consequences if she doesn’t let him go. Naturally, she doesn’t, and this time she’s threatened with suspension.

The action gradually tightens around Soni and Kalpana’s relationship, which becomes a real (if rather unrealistic) bond. Kalpana’s maternal instincts have previously been shown in her affection for her young teen niece Nishu (Simrat Kaur), to whom she gives the memoir of feminist poet Amrita Pritam to help her through a gender-oriented humiliation at school. But the short-fused Soni is more difficult material to mold. Both of them seem like the feminist descendants of legendary police chief and social activist Kiran Bedi, who is mentioned at one point in the film.

As the story continues and the examples accumulate, sexual harassment and gender inequality increasingly become the main subjects of the film. The three police operations Soni and Kalpana take part in are mild action pieces by film standards, with no blazing guns or serious danger. One also feels the absence of clever cop dialogue between the two women, which would have added another dimension to the film.

Production companies: Jabberwockee Talkies
Cast: Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Saloni Batra, Vikas Shukla, Mohit Chauhan
Director: Ivan Ayr
Screenwriters: Ivan Ayr, Kislay Kislay
Producers: Kimsi Singh, Kartikeya Narayan Singh
Director of photography: David Bolen
Production designer: Vipin Kamboj
Costume designer: Navjeet Kaur
Editors: Ivan Ayr, Gurvinder Sigh  
Music: Nicholas Jacobson-Larson, Andrea Penso
Casting director: Gautam Arora
Venue: MAMI Mumbai Film Festival
97 mins.