The film Soni tells the story of two female police officers in Delhi dealing with professional and personal difficulties vis-à-vis patriarchy, sexism, and harassment. The film, released on online streaming site Netflix, is an arthouse piece that looks at everyday feminism and focuses on Indian women who aren’t necessarily born into privilege.
Directed by Ivan Ayr, Soni is observant rather than preachy. It is subtle and not melodramatic while exploring a beautiful bond between two female working professionals.
Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, 27, who plays the protagonist, Soni, grew up in the North Indian state of Haryana and graduated from Kirori Mal College in New Delhi. In college, she was mentored by theater personality Keval Arora, and that is when her tryst with theater began. Being a student of English literature, films were never a part of Ohlyan’s childhood and utmost importance was given to reading, music, and academic growth.
She has been a part of the Delhi theater circuit for several years but Soni is Ohlyan’s first performance onscreen. Here is an excerpt from Asia Times’ interview with Ohlyan:
How did you prepare yourself for Soni’s role?
In terms of Soni being a sub-inspector, I had personally visited policewomen in Delhi University’s campus. The station house officer was a woman and she had an entire team of lean and strong yet gentle-looking women who were hardcore police officers. I went with them for patrolling rounds, sat with them and observed them conduct themselves in front of people who were there for having committed crimes. I saw them interacting with each other very differently than how they were interacting with “criminals.”
In terms of Soni’s relationship with Kalpana [Soni’s boss], we had several workshops that helped us feel like a part of each other. It helped in building a relationship between us where one ensures the other’s survival to survive herself.
Are there any similarities between Soni’s and Geetika’s reactions to certain situations?
I’ve had different approaches to similar situations at different stages of life. I remember walking in a market with a friend and suddenly this man who had a stunted physical growth was walking towards me and he made a strange gesture which was clearly meant to harass me sexually. The next thing that happens is me walking at the same pace but having slapped the guy and walking as if nothing happened.
My friend was right next to me who didn’t even notice when it happened but she was like – hey, someone slapped a guy. She was looking down searching for something in her bag and by the time she looked up, it had already happened. I said, “yeah, a girl slapped him.” And my friend looked at me and realized that I was the “girl.”
There have been times when I have felt that rather than punishing someone I can talk to them and convince them to not do a similar thing again because a woman is a human and she feels hurt by these.
What inspires you to be an actor?
My inspirations are the constant reminders of what I faced while growing up. My father, whom I lost when I was only one year old, was a theater actor and I grew up hearing that I resemble him, and I’ve developed this faith in me that I have the ability to act. Moreover, in college, I was praised by my theater mentor Keval Arora for playing in a certain way with silences, which were pregnant with meaning.
What inspired you to take up this role?
The intention behind the story of Soni – the honesty with which the film was trying to portray the real circumstances around us – inspired me. I grew up in the National Capital Region of Delhi and had lived a good six years inside Delhi when Soni came to my life and I knew I really wanted to do it. It is one of those things that are so honest that no matter how many years past, I know I would look back at it and feel proud to have been a part of it.
What were the challenges you faced playing Soni’s character?
One of the biggest challenges while doing Soni was to not emote everything through my face and be able to execute rage or angst that has become an undercurrent of a person’s being. With education and the right kind of people around us, we tend to learn ways of protecting ourselves from harmful emotions like anger, hate, insecurity, and fear. We pick up on those and learn how to save ourselves. However, Soni or the police force are not expected to be highly educated. They have had a basic education. A lot of them have had a middle or lower-middle-class upbringing; they were educated primarily for vocational purposes. Such kids rarely have proper conditions to be able to learn to deal with emotionally difficult circumstances.
Soni is one such person who has grown up in a lower-middle-class family and is now in a tough job and has no way of gratifying her needs – sexual, physical, or emotional. She has no sense of fulfillment but still has to keep going and has the best intentions for the society around her. She is a real person and hence, not a flawless hero.
Quite honestly, what scared me most about the role was that it is someone’s reality – there are women leading such lives. For a role like this, I needed to peel off all the layers of comfort and shed all the tools that Geetika is equipped with and make myself vulnerable as Soni, yet have the strength of someone who does not give up. I was scared of the amount of trauma that has been internalized by this character and I had to play that for almost a month. We could not switch on and off the characters as and when the cameras rolled and stopped. It was a tough time.
What does a film like Soni mean for Hindi cinema?
I have not watched a lot of Hindi cinema but my idea is that it shows extremes – some fairytale-like lives or portrayals of brutal and unreal violence. Also, an attempt to narrate an entire story with a beginning, middle, and an end in a film is something that happens quite frequently in Hindi cinema, and I am saying this with my limited understanding of it. I hope this film can send out a message to filmmakers that cataloguing reality can also be cinema. It does not necessarily need to be larger than life. It can be life as it is because that itself can be very dramatic and that is a very beautiful form of preserving history.
This film can mean whatever one wants it to mean. It can just be a simple tale of two women whose lives for some period have been recorded; it can mean a story which is honest; it can show lives of people who are real and flawed. It can signal that films can run without heroes and so can life.