Sunday 26 May 2019

On demand: "Soni"

The heroine of the Indian indie Soni will doubtless seem familiar in some way to those of us raised on primetime TV serials. As played by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, she's a police officer wrestling with the pressures of her profession, the impact that job has had on her personal life, and more specifically yet with being a woman in a public-facing role. The context we find her in, however, will strike Western eyes as markedly different. Soni patrols the meaner streets of Delhi, where the idea of a woman being elevated to a position of authority is still, apparently, some distance beyond the accepted pale. And our heroine has a temper, which makes her a doubly complicated and fascinating study: in the first twenty minutes alone, we witness her laying into some horndog who's pursued her into an alleyway, and slapping a drunk driver who's refused to follow her instructions. It's not that these men don't deserve the treatment, and it's not that Soni doesn't know right from wrong - she wouldn't have chosen this career path if she didn't - but equally she appears determined to make an already tough job vastly more difficult for herself. She's not a paragon, in other words, but a problem we're invited to puzzle over as her superiors do - a woman so determined to demonstrate her strength and independence that she's almost incapable of working as part of a squad. Somewhere in the back of the film's thinking, you spy the New India wrestling with the simultaneously liberating and threatening notion of feminism.

That we're miles removed from the frontline glamour of Bollywood is evident in director Ivan Ayr's lived-in locations and muted colours, and in the film's fondness for long, skilfully performed scenes that measure the seesawing of power in this part of the world. If there's been a direct Western equivalent to Soni, it wouldn't be the essentially procedural Prime Suspect, but the interpersonal Polisse. Ayr offers us glimpses of the kinds of cases Delhi officers might work, but nothing's directly followed up, and it's crucial to what this filmmaker is going for that Soni isn't a save-the-day heroine, rather a centrepoint her colleagues have to work with or around. So we get scenes in which those superiors try and figure out what to do with this young woman after each breach of code - and it's an insightful new angle to make those superiors a married couple, as if Soni were a problem child to be discussed before lights-out. (These scenes also raise the provocative question of what the authorities would do with any man posing a similar challenge. Soni is hauled over the coals for lashing out at citizens you may well feel merit a clip round the ear, but two male colleagues caught in the act of blackmailing teenage lovers are permitted to walk away without so much as a slap on the wrist.) Ayr's pacing is nearly there: though his longueurs allow us to feel relationships building and fraying, there are arguably one or two too many scenes of Soni pottering around her home to show that a police officer's life isn't all shootouts and car chases. Nevertheless, many of the bedrocks of a long and creatively fruitful career have been set in place here. Ayr stages edgy confrontations, refuses all copouts, and is throughout rigorous in his insistence that what action there is should come from character. It helps that Soni is a hell of a character: resolutely played by Ohlyan - never going for easy sympathy, nor offering even a trace of a smile - she may be the single most complex protagonist in all recent Indian cinema.

Soni is now streaming on Netflix.

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