There’s a trend in mainstream Hindi (or “Bollywood”) films of falling back on boisterous courtroom sermonizing. Some stories go as far as policemen endorsing vigilantism and extrajudicial violence in response to rape statistics. It’s a gleeful, increasingly concerning norm, but one that stems from understandable frustrations with the system. For some, there’s catharsis to be found in retaliation.
Soni on the other hand, directed by first-timer Ivan Ayr and distributed by Netflix, is a swing in the other direction.
A tale of policewomen investigating violent crimes against women, but caught between duty and patriarchal pressures, Ayr’s film is particularly evocative of recent neorealist gems like Netflix’s own My Happy Family, from Georgian duo Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß. A small example: Hues of blue woven throughout the production design result in a chilling effect, enhancing moments of isolation where characters are framed through narrow doorways. The drama is meticulously crafted; this is one of those rare films where everything clicks into place.
Before we see a single frame, a man whistles as if trying to draw the attention of a dog. When the picture comes up moments later, what (or whom) he’s actually whistling at, and how he’s conducting himself, tell a different story. Right from the get-go, there’s an eerie connection drawn between normalcy and discomfort, a thread that rears its ugly head every so often as policewoman Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) navigates the world around her.
Soni has a righteous temper. She acts out against men who harass her on the street — one even ends up in the hospital — but Ayr doesn’t frame her as a heroic badass the way a crowd-pleaser might. Instead, the director imbues the revenge fantasy with a layer of reality, as if to showcase what would really happen if cops, especially women, were to follow the lofty calls to violence of Bollywood’s male heroes. Soni exists at the nexus of a dueling power dynamic, a fine line the film walks with a cautious swagger; she’s both a woman in a man’s world, and a cop within a larger socioeconomic hierarchy.
Sometimes this means reacting violently to harassment and being reprimanded for it. Other times it means dismissing women of lower social standing when they bring up similar complaints. She’s angry, and rightfully so, but she’s also caught up in her own world, uncertain of whether or not her actions and duties even matter.
The other side of this equation is Soni’s superior officer, Kalpana (Salonia Batra). Where Soni is told to keep her aggression in check, Kalpana’s emotions are dismissed in response to her empathy. She cares about her subordinates, perhaps to a fault; her husband, the commissioner, warns her both about her own emotional investment in people, and about Soni’s short fuse — a PR liability, should Kalpana give her second chance.
To the men in the picture, both of these extremes of love and anger are seen as hurdles to the job, but they never once provide an alternative. Instead, they either dismiss, harass or demand bribes from teenagers — the law enforcement status quo — while Soni and Kalpana figure out how to wield their respective emotionally charged modus operandi.
What their dichotomy comes down to is wondering not only how to navigate a dangerous world, both at the station and on the streets, but wondering how they can make a difference, if at all. Kalpana is by the book while Soni is a loose canon, but this familiar dynamic is explored as a clash of real-world ideologies, rather than an opportunity for buddy-cop action. Ayr uses these archetypes to draw us into what drives them, spending at least half the film’s runtime at their respective homes while they’re off duty.
Soni goes about her chores alone. Her walls are plain, and she has only her houseplants to keep her company. Her husband is out of the picture for now, so she spends some of her domestic screen time opposite an older neighbor (the wife of a former policeman) who dolls out everything from household tips, to relationship advice, to tricks to avoid harassment. Kalpana however, comes from an extended Sikh family, but even her lively, colourful home can’t help but be intrusive. She’s touching thirty, so everyone expects her to put her life on hold to have a child, though of course, no one expects this of her husband.
Each scene, whether at Soni’s or Kalpana’s home or at the police station, is directed with aplomb. You might not even notice that each one plays out in a single take, given how deftly the actors draw the eye, and how their blocking and subtle gesticulations become the focus of the story. Soni is told through the ways each woman navigates the spaces around her, and how everything from their posture, to their tone of voice, to the language they use shifts depending on their surroundings.
The long takes facilitate these changes in physical and emotional states, as if cutting away from the performances for even a moment would result in missing an emotional beat. The film has a theatrical precision; each movement is timed to near perfection as the camera moves from room to room and group to group, and the actors respond as if having entered a different stage in their lives. Soni is a film about learning to exist when things can’t be fixed overnight, and preparing — as if through secrets, whispered from the screen — for the long road to fixing them.
Despite being at loggerheads, Soni and Kalpana have a mutually supportive relationship. This solid rapport, even as they falter and inadvertently endanger each other’s careers, is ultimately what’s at stake; Kalpana is responsible for Soni’s actions, and any fault in how they navigate violence or harassment ultimately comes down on the both of them.
There’s no easy solution to what Soni and Kalpana are up against, and no answer that lies conveniently in the middle. Instead, the film finds ways to side with both of them. It frames neither fury nor empathy as hidden solutions, but as equally necessary survival mechanism, and it does so through constant, expertly timed movement, capturing confusion, volatility, and tenderness, often in the same breath.
Siddhant Adlakha is an actor, independent filmmaker, television writer, and freelance film critic. He lives in Mumbai, New York, and online.