It’s hard being the only honest individual in a rotten bureaucracy. You’re constantly asked to be a little more ‘flexible’ and introduce some pragmatism while interacting with those in power. And when you’re a woman in this situation, the hurdles simply multiply by 10. The two women at the centre of Ivan Ayr’s Soni aren’t just fighting their battle of being honest people in a dishonest time, but they also have to meet the ever-changing, discriminatory standards set by patriarchy.
That’s why you hear Soni (an outstanding debut by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) constantly being reminded of the law, more than the perpetrators she is dealing with. And that’s why Kalpana’s (a fine performance by Saloni Batra) top-cop husband is repeatedly heard discussing her ‘out-of-line’ empathy for her subordinates, as if it were an illness.
The film starts with a particularly disturbing scene where a persistent ‘street-admirer’ follows a girl on a bicycle. David Bolen’s long, uninterrupted take means the tension is unrelenting and the audience gets a taste of an Indian woman’s harrowing experience, something most have to deal with on a daily basis. Even as female police officers. Ayr’s film is rich in atmospherics, and the smoggy evenings of Delhi only dial up the apathy by several notches. Filmed entirely during a Delhi winter, the two female police officers can be seen enveloped in the toxic fumes of society.
Soni is a recently-separated (implied) Jat officer, whose volatility is blamed on where she hails from. At one point, someone slips in a remark about how violence is known to be a domestic issue for ‘these people’. Her reporting officer, Kalpana, is the upper middle-class Punjabi IPS, who cannot escape the societal deadlines of having a baby in spite of her career as an IPS officer. Soni’s usually coarse vocabulary transforms into long silences in front of her senior officer, whom she respects too much. Kalpana, on the other hand, takes it upon herself to discipline Soni like an elder sister. But she never stops acknowledging the unfair hand dealt to her subordinate, always making an effort to understand Soni’s profuse rage.
This pure bond between Soni & Kalpana is the soul of the film, and what grounds it. About two upright women fighting the world on a daily basis, the film never once resorts to Bollywood’s (recent?) cliche of handing women cigarettes and alcohol, as shorthand for ‘liberal’. They don’t even utter the words ‘feminism’ or ‘equal rights’, it’s not their world. But what Kalpana does in a heartwarming scene is, explain to Soni why Amrita Pritam’s autobiography is titled The Revenue Stamp.
The two men in the film (the respective husbands) could have been reduced to being the ‘cardboard cut-out villains’ in the hands of a lesser director. Instead, we’re shown the contradictions in them. Kalpana’s well-read husband gives her an earful, after his ego is bruised by the assistant of a cabinet minister. And Soni’s good-for-nothing husband unexpectedly breaks down in front of her, while talking about a regretful chapter in their marriage.
For a film on the burning topic like women’s safety and gender equality, Ivan Ayr’s film is remarkably reined in. It never goes into overdrive with its ‘message’, instead the film quietly leaves its sermon at your doorstep. If you’re keen enough, you’ll read between the lines and find the ‘statement’ the film is making through its many silent moments.