Ivan Ayr’s impressive debut, in the running for the prestigious First Feature Competition at the London Film Festival, sheds light on the incessant trials a female police officer can face in New Delhi. Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) is stalked, catcalled and harassed by numerous men whilst on duty, patronised and degraded at every turn. Her fiery temper and tendency to lash out in self-defence becomes a problem when her manager Kalpana (Saloni Batra) threatens to jeopardise the positions of authority that both of them have fought so hard to occupy.
Soni is most effective as a portrait of two strong, intelligent women who are forced to examine their own roles in relation to society and each other. The on-screen relationship begins when Kalpana gives Soni a stern, and perhaps unfair dressing-down for crossing the line in an official altercation, seemingly setting up the classic good-cop bad-cop dynamic. Yet Ayr’s script is deceptively complex, playing with our expectations and assumptions. A quiet friendship and powerful solidarity develops between the two women as they negotiate their place in a deeply patriarchal society. It is rare to see such a considered and nuanced depiction of female friendship on screen, let alone one which straddles the public and domestic spheres so deftly. Both are fighting their best fight in different ways—Soni’s tendency toward muteness heightens her fierce resolve and emphasises her sporadic outbursts, while Kalpana’s dignity and benevolent composure shield an iron will. Kalpana’s loving relationships with her teenage niece, police chief husband and traditional mother add a deep humanity and empathy to her character and demonstrate the multiple roles that she is expected to fulfil.
Largely shot on the night shift, the film makes superb use of David Bolen’s cinematography, capturing the orange glow of New Delhi’s backstreets and its early morning haze. Soni and Kalpana are watched by an intimate camera—in the office, out on duty, at home—echoing their conspicuous and tentative positions in society. Micro- and macro-aggressions combine in a multi-layered narrative which draws on female policewomen’s own testimonies of working life. Subtle abuses of power pinpoint larger issues of morality, accountability and corruption in modern India, and the provoking testimonies that Sonia and Kalpana hear shed light on our own gender expectations. Sylvain Bellemare’s sound design deserves a special mention, providing a rich and absorbing urban sound-scape.
Soni is a film for the post-Me Too era: a varied presentation of what strong women can look like and one that probes the multiple abuses of patriarchal culture without reducing women to mere victims. Ayr deserves much commendation for privileging women’s experience and writing such well-rounded female characters, but ultimately it is Ohlyan and Batra’s compelling performances that bring his film to life. We need more films like Soni, and I hope the LFF will continue to provide a platform for them.