'Soni' forces you as a viewer to introspect how easily we have normalised patterns of male violence and aggression.

Soni review This film on Netflix about two Indian women cops is a must watch
Flix Netflix Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 17:10

“Why don’t you wear sindoor?" a caring neighbour asks Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), the eponymous character, a cop on night duty for a special operation. A Muslim herself, the neighbour says she has used this trick to keep herself safe while walking back and forth from a sewing class. “It’s not even in our religion, but it ensured that the harassment stopped,” she quips, with absolutely no anger or malice in her voice. 

Soni, directed by debutant Ivan Ayr, now streaming on Netflix, has many such conversations and moments that can occur in any of our homes. Unlike most mainstream films featuring cops or ‘women’s issues’, this slice of life cop drama has no rhetoric, no bombastic declarations of revenge or melodrama of any kind. Instead, the script by Ivan Ayr and Kislay, draws you into a slow burn drama that unfolds largely at night, and in the confines of the protagonists' homes, a police station, and the bleak streets of New Delhi, a city which ironically has the highest number of women in the police force.

The film opens with Soni cycling on an isolated Delhi street when a harasser starts following her, mouthing obscenities. She ignores him for a long time, till she can’t take it anymore and leaves him with a broken jaw and swollen eye. Soni is reprimanded for hitting him instead of following the protocol of the decoy operation in which she is the bait to lure deviant men harassing women on the streets of Delhi. Soni is sincere, honest and brings great humanity to her job, but if provoked, she explodes, lashing out at the man who misbehaved with her.

Kalpana (Saloni Batra), her supervisor, is the exact opposite. An IPS officer, she is calm, rational and believes in resolving problems instead of reacting to them. Despite their contrasting personalities, the two women develop a strong bond of mutual respect and understanding that extends to their lives outside the police station.

While they tackle issues of women’s safety in public spaces, Soni also weaves in gender issues that Kalpana and Soni are facing in their personal lives. Soni is shamed and punished for being aggressive, Kalpana is shamed by her husband Sandeep (Mohit Chauhan) for not being aggressive enough, and her mother-in-law for not prioritising her future grandkids.

Ayr and Kislay build a subtle but suffocating web of cruelty and callousness that constantly make a woman feel inadequate, incorrect, and uncomfortable. In a telling scene, Sandeep just sits back and says nothing in support when his relative mocks Soni, calling her Bandit Queen and a Kiran Bedi wannabe. Clearly whether at home or in the workplace, there is nothing more undesirable than a woman who refuses to toe the line, or expresses anger of any kind.

The film’s subtle tone and unobtrusive cinematography that includes long single shots and realistic costumes and sets, underline its central goal of highlighting how we have normalised unacceptable behaviour from men. The scenes with Soni alone are framed such that you keep expecting someone to jump up and attack her from the back, a fear most women live with for life.

Ivan Ayr shows remarkable depth, empathy and insight by exploring the various kinds of abuse - physical, mental and emotional. The narrative transitions organically between the personal and professional lives of Kalpana and Soni, who are brought together by their shared need for validation and respect. The film never judges either of the protagonists or hints at whether either needs to do something differently or better. It asks us to accept these women as they are and show empathy and understanding with their plight -  and by extension, the plight of women all around the country who face harassment, subtle and overt, from the time they are in school. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan and Saloni Batra are both excellent, slipping into the skins of their characters and performing their roles with restraint and understanding.

Soni also forces you as a viewer to introspect how easily we have normalised patterns of male violence and aggression. Whether it’s a roadside rowdy, a naval officer, a creep on a police helpline who doesn’t think twice about asking the cop answering the phone for her number, to a powerful politician’s arrogant son, the film creates a frightening portrait of just how ubiquitous male entitlement is.

While the incidents in the film incense you, what is also chilling is how none of it surprises you. A patronising husband who constantly undermines his wife’s capabilities, an entitled brat who makes sexual advances while using cocaine in the only ladies' bathroom, a man who follows you when you walk back alone, the powerful men who will casually touch you like it’s their right or that boy from high school who first violated your personal space and haunts you even today. Across age groups, class and geography, each one of us has had an experience where a man has thought it was his right to violate our personal space and be condoned for his behaviour, simply because he was a man.

Perhaps one of the best movies to be acquired by Netflix from India, Soni is an unflinching portrayal of our times that cannot be missed.

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