Despite its narrative minimalism, Soni, a Netflix film, has a compelling story to tell. Through Soni, debutant writer-director Ivan Ayr puts forth the burning question of our times: Is the world safe for women?
Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) is a hardened police officer. A hothead. Based in Delhi, she is part of an operation that uses women police officers (Ohlyan) as decoys to nail ruffians perpetrating crimes against women. She is part of a system that employs women to function for the welfare of the establishment, yet reprimands them for carrying out their duty diligently. How far will the system go to protect its own is the pertinent question here. Unfortunately, the answer differs when it comes to women and men.
Soni is apathetic towards men who take it upon themselves to tell her what’s what. She is unapologetic in her tone and action and bears the brunt of being fearless, upfront, and at times, violent - something that she is constantly reminded of. On several occasions, she is lectured, and also demoted from her post when she acts against those in position of power (mostly men). However, she is not one to back down easily.
Kalpana Ummat (Saloni Batra) is Soni’s senior. She is an IPS officer and operation in-charge. Even though she is more socially influential and professionally significant than Soni, Kalpana suffers persecution at the hands of men, and also women, who, time and again, remind her how she ought to behave and what is expected of her. However, she channels her indifference inwards and presents us with a portrait of a quintessential senior officer of the police force.
As opposed to Soni, she is instructional and soft-spoken in her tone, and in essence, a true leader. Howsoever her trust may be misplaced in men (Sandeep, her husband is also a senior police officer) to do the right thing, she persists, and in the process, emancipates others like her.
Soni’s character dynamics are its mainstay. Soni’s relationship with Kalpana is more of friendship and is not marred by demarcations of professional hierarchy or social structure. Kalpana drops in at her home, often unannounced. Between operations, they bond over tea and meals. Kalpana is supportive and constantly defends Soni’s actions in front of Sandeep (Mohit Chauhan). She even counsels her through metaphorical anecdotes, which are crisp and situational.
On the opposite spectrum, the characters’ relationship with their opposite gender is dictated by power dynamics and norms of social acceptance. Sandeep is patronizing in tone and demeanor. In a dinner scene, Nishu’s father (Dalip Kumar Gulati) parodies Soni when he compares her to Bandit Queen and Kiran Bedi and goes on to generalise domestic violence in lower class people. The sad part is that Sandeep is unsupportive of Kalpana when this happens.
Soni’s relationship with her husband Naveen (Vikas Shukla) is suggested in prolonged silences on Soni’s part whenever they are together. She can see past him and his pseudo-masculinity. She barely looks him in the eye. In a scene, when she actually talks to him, he is out of focus. Irrelevant. Then there is Huma (Gauri Chakraborty) and Mummy Ji (Mohinder Gujral) who demand that Soni and Kalpana conform to society’s perception of an ideal woman. Although their opinions hardly matter to the concerned party, they are, nevertheless, forthright in their assertion and diktat.
The film is essentially woven in realism. The director keeps the dialogues minimal and in an everyday conversational tone. Mostly, the characters speak through silence. The film is mostly shot on-location, which adds to the reality of the world inhabited by the characters. Their proximity to our daily surroundings makes them more relatable. The film uses long takes to make the storytelling more immersive. Its sound design is prominent in the use of ambience. Soni listens to news on the radio, that reminds us of how the world is taking note of safety issues - by undertaking mass surveillance and running separate buses for women. There is no background score in the film. These tropes stress upon investing in Soni’s story and look nowhere else.
Director Ivan Ayr's storytelling technique is simple and effective. Soni is a social drama deeply rooted in the reality of our times. Ayr has a story to tell and does that minus the stars and a promotional bandwagon. The film premiered in the Orrizonti (Horizons) section of the 75th Venice International Film Festival. Soni is currently streaming on Netflix.