LICH rating: (4 / 5)
You hear the wolf-whistle and jeering before the screen dim-lights a woman cycling on the streets of New Delhi, followed and leered by a man on another cycle, his lewd comments seemingly pushing her to pedal faster into a lane. It’s only later, as she turns on him and beats the living early-daylights out of him that you breathe easier.
Debutante director Ivan Ayr helms what will go down as one of the finest Indian movies to be procured and streamed by Netflix. Made on a budget that’ll make the shoestring of blockbuster budgets seem ultra-lavish, Soni is a thoughtful study of lives of women in a metro, in this case India’s capital, known more for crimes against women and its safety (or its lack thereof.) The woman you see in the opening scene is the titular character, played with a coiled, wounded-tigress like ferocity by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, making her startling debut here. Soni’s angry and it’s not just the graveyard shift that’s taking its toll on her. Playing the bait for lascivious, entitled predators stalking the streets at night, it’s a role that pumps up her ferocity, but also leaves her juice for little else. Her personal life is in a downward spiral, and there’s nothing comforting about her stark accommodation that she returns to after her demanding patrolling. Her kitchen’s a box, almost a blown up version of the microwave that heats the water she needs with her food. But it’s all a cold affair, and if there’s any warmth in the biting cold, it’s her downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Huma (Gauri Chakraborty) who cares for her as her own, and the dhoop stick that Soni lights every morning in front of an unseen deity. She’s separated from Naveen (Vikas Shukla), who’s stumbling all over the place to patch up, while their relationship seems to be stuck in a dry, irretrievable place; and Ayr slowly reveals bits of what could have gone wrong later on in the movie.
There’s another side of the movie’s coin, and that’s Soni’s boss, Kalpana Ummat, played with sparkling restraint by debutante Saloni Batra. Post that night scene of scuffle, the director shows the stark differences between Soni and Kalpana’s lives—the latter returns home to a tastefully done bungalow, a gentle, loving husband, Sandeep (an understated and dignified turn by Mohit Chauhan)—who’s also a cop and just gotten his promotion, and will sit with her on the visitor’s side of the table to have tea in his newly appointed office—and a caring mother in-law (superbly played by Mohinder Gujral), a sister (Dimple Kaur) and her niece (Simrat Kaur), who all appear to be firm anchors in her all-is-well life. It seems that only Soni’s tendency to kick and flail seem to be a thorn in her life. And yet, Kalpana’s calm and supportive of her, even if she does tick her off for going off the protocol track .
With cinematographer David Bolen‘s hand-held, fluid, and observant camera work, Ayr chronicles the parallels in these two women’s lives and then slowly intertwines them, throwing natural light on the similar gender perception battles they have to fight, paying a deep, personal price for the jobs they have to do. But if it’s a price that women pay, how come it’s an outstanding achievement when it comes to men? Having an offspring is a woman’s responsibility, never mind that the man seeds the future generation and goes onto scale greater heights in his career. (And that’s not counting the men who women encounter in their jobs, any conversation or even the job that they’re doing that makes it seemingly alright for the former to proposition the latter). But what of Kalpana, who’s got such deep-rooted empathy for her juniors that prompts her husband to keep prodding her to not be so thoughtful about them? But that’s Kalpana for you—ensuring her high emotional quotient wraps all those around her in a comforting shrug of much-needed warmth: be it Soni’s cooking gas cylinder problem, ensuring her driver gets his cuppa tea and dinner, or a complainant gets the requisite understanding and protection, Kalpana is the world’s comforter, and yours too.
And in this beautiful, stark, and outstanding movie—sans any background score (except the haunting closing piece by Andrea Penso in the end) that you don’t miss because of the stunning sound design by Ajayan Adat and Sylvain Bellemare—writers Ayr and Kislay Kislay deftly, sharply bring into relief the societal mores that women must always, always strain against, be it a ferocious fighter like Soni, a calm and mature influence Kalpana (who’s not without her inner struggles) or a fiery writer such as Amrita Pritam. They also throw a sharp scythe at schools where girls are shamed and the seemingly impotent gestures that the government announces for women’s protection—CCTVs, night patrols, and what have you— that sound good on the airwaves. But what weapon do they have against that venomous and venal malaise: “Do you know who my father is?”
LICH ratings chart
(1 / 5): Don’t bother
(2 / 5): Not too great
(3 / 5): Worth a watch
(4 / 5): Very good
(5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW
Soni is rated A (Restricted to adults) Serious, brooding content
Director Ivan Ayr Running Time 1h 37min
Writers Ivan Ayr, Kislay Kislay
Stars Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Saloni Batra, Mohit Chauhan