Ivan Ayr’s Soni, a new Netflix film, revolves around a young Delhi cop, Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), battling a unique predicament: of being a saviour and a survivor. She and her supervisor, Kalpana (Saloni Batra), a superintendent of police, are planning an operation that will make Delhi safe for women. But the city’s men, who first see Soni as a single woman and then as a police personnel (if at all), repeatedly invade her personal space and harass her.
Soni, in response, retaliates: she slaps, punches and socks their jaws – resulting in a police inquiry and transfer.
But Soni, we soon find out, is a much quieter film. When Soni returns home from a rough night shift, she waters her plants, lights an agarbatti and washes her face. We follow her from one room to another – the camera filming the scene in one long take – seeing a person, devoid of labels, getting on with her day. It then cuts to Kalpana, who is questioned by her mother-in-law for coming late and her commitment to the family. She deflects that with a gentle smile as the family sits for breakfast.
Much of the drama in Soni lies in these mundane moments, elevating it from the simplistic morass of heroes and villains. The perpetrators roam around the city, cat calling and abusing and smirking. Soni and Kalpana, aware of them, know how to put them in place. But what should they do about their own people – a seemingly progressive bunch flinging insinuations and taunts – whose worldviews are similarly disconcerting?
Kalpana’s husband, Sandeep (Mohit Chauhan), is a senior policeman. They live in a plush part of Delhi, enjoying the privileges of the sophisticated elites. And yet he defines her style of work in narrow, gendered terms: She’s “soft”, “sentimental”, “gets attached” to her subordinates – in short, not man enough. At a party, Kalpana’s sister-in-law, while serving dinner, casually interrogates her about her maternity plans. Kalpana keeps quiet, but we figure out the larger implication – Ayr baring the mechanics of Indian patriarchy: sometimes explicit (on streets, by outsiders, assuming a crass form) but often implicit (in the home, by the family, seeming much benign).
Soni deals with familiar motifs, but its methods are home-grown and original. As the film dives deep into the protagonists’ personal lives, we see relationships, and snatches of scenes, that have eluded Hindi cinema for long. Soni’s only close friend is Huma (Gauri Chakraborty), an elderly woman in her building close to her mother’s age, who bonds with, and cares for, her in the most ordinary ways: offering help to get a new gas cylinder; drawing curtains in the living room, guarding her privacy; sharing safety tips.
Then there’s the friendship between Kalpana and her niece, who talks in hashtags and calls her aunt by her first name. And finally – the film’s most beautiful segment – the relationship between Kalpana and Soni, incorporating different shades: of a boss and a subordinate, an older and a younger sister, a pragmatic and a naive friend.
There’s a sense of wholeness to these people and, consequently, this film. When Soni and Kalpana are at an upscale restaurant, we get a hint of their class difference. Ayr, in the above family dinner scene, reveals the segregation perpetuated by the Indian upper-middle class: men downing whiskey, women sipping chai, and their collective classist attitudes towards their domestic help and Soni.
This is a stunning debut. The writing here is so confident – so wonderfully understated – that you’re constantly intrigued, compelled to figure out this film on your own. It’s aided by superb cinematography (by David Bolen), which relies on long fluid takes, dissolving the separation between the audiences and the characters. You always get the sense that you’re with Soni and Kalpana – in their homes, their workplace, their brawls with ruffians.
Besides, Ayr isn’t the only notable debutant in Soni. Its leads, Ohlyan and Batra, are making their acting debut in films, too. They complement each other, making Soni truly memorable. Batra, the taller and the sturdier of the two, commands the frame, castigating and advising Soni.
Batra essays Kalpana with a fierce front but not without empathy and warmth, understanding the peculiarities of her hot-headed subordinate in a way only one working woman can understand the other. Ohlyan brings to Soni a long-festering exasperation and anger, someone who has been on the edge for so long that she isn’t afraid of falling. And yet, when Kalpana talks, Soni listens, occasionally muttering a “thank you” or a “sorry”: two women, emerging from the long shadows of patriarchy, unafraid of seeing the blinding sun.