LFF 2018: Soni Review
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After making a quiet debut at this year’s Venice Film Festival in the horizon section, Ivan Ayr’s Indian drama Soni makes its way to the London Film Festival hoping to gain a little more traction. It’s a slow-burn drama and carefully scripted looking at the harassment faced by women in the country and the expectations placed upon female police officers working in law enforcement.
The film feels timely in many ways following some of the horrific sexual assaults that have made national headlines in India over the past few years. This has led to tougher laws in the country offering more protection for women, although as Ayr’s film highlights, altering the behaviour of some men will take far more than introducing new laws and changing legal boundaries.
The two women positioned at the centre of the film are Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) and Kalpana (Saloni Batra). They both work in a unit focussed on violent crimes against women led by Kalpana, who is quick to admonish Soni when she loses her patience (which is regularly) with leering or abusive men. Although her rashness causes problems with their operations and raises complaints from those attacked by Soni, Kalpana sees something of herself in her and does all she can to keep their superiors at bay.
Luckily enough Kalpana is married to Commissioner Sandeep (Mohit Chauhan) which makes things a little easier. Although she can usually talk him round to showing leniency towards Soni, Kalpana has to face his anger for not being hard enough on her staff. Sandeep is the boss at work and wants her to feel he is at home too. While Soni’s personal life is under strain because of her commitment to work and an unresolved issue with her ex-husband Naveen (Vikas Shukla), Kalpana is facing pressure from her sister and mother-in-law to start a family.
Ivan Ayr’s debut is based in the traditions of India’s Parallel Cinematic movement concentrating on the small details of both women's lives. His nuanced script peels away the hardened exterior they put on to survive in the workplace, where male colleagues and everyday civilians are looking to undermine them if given the chance. Soni’s neighbour fusses over her poor eating habits and any time spent looking after herself is at bare minimum. It provides the ideal escape from a much larger problem that caused her to separate from Naveen some months before, which is revealed in an emotional conversation between the pair later in the film.
Distance is often kept between Soni and ourselves, and nearly all of the scenes are filmed in a single shot (but not as a continuous whole across the entire film). This isn’t a gimmick pushed to the foreground because it is only by the midway point you slowly begin to realise how fluidly each moment has passed by. This is aided by strong performances from both Ohlyan and Batra, who belie their relative inexperience with textured portrayals of two women reliant on an inner resolve forged by the ignorance of the men around them.
Soni is very much a generational film looking at the expectations and acceptance of working women in a traditional society, those willing to challenge conformity, and as seen through Kalpana's niece Nishu, a glimpse of how their experiences will help mould the next generation. Ayr also gives nods towards India's first ever female police officer Kiran Bedi and influential feminist-poet Amrita Pritam, while showing us the changing face of India through the eyes of two female police officers willing to drive it from the ground up.
There are three screenings of Soni at the London Film Festival and you can buy tickets on the BFI website.