In the time of Simmba, Netflix's Soni brings much-needed empathy to the genre of toxic cop dramas
Empathy, the overarching theme of Soni, evades Simmba, which never rises above the glorification of a corrupt police officer.
As Rohit Shetty's cop drama Simmba rages on at the box office, clocking in over Rs 200 crore, another cop drama silently gathers steam on Netflix. Ivan Ayr's Soni has been dubbed by many as Netflix's best Hindi film yet, and one cannot help but agree. A nuanced and sensitive take on crimes against women, Soni seems all the more refreshing since it comes just three weeks after Simmba, critcised for its tone-deaf and extremist treatment of rape perpetrators.
Simmba had Ranveer Singh, playing a Goa-based cop, as the focal point. He evolves from a corrupt cop to a rape-avenging officer in the course of the narrative. Rape is used merely as a tool to allow ACP Sangram "Simmba" Bhalerao a complete arc as a strong statement is made against sexual assault and other crimes against women to accentuate his masculinity. On the other hand, Soni revolves around two female cops in Delhi, who have contrasting approaches to tackling criminals, thus providing more room for debate. While Geetika Vidya Ohlyan's Soni retaliates physically when provoked, her senior Kalpana (Saloni Batra) is upright and conscientious, a stickler for procedure.
Shetty probably lacked the influence of a Kalpana in his life, who could have imparted some sense and patience to him. After depicting a fake encounter targetting rape perpetrators in Simmba, Shetty went on to confidently assert that he would shoot any man who ever raped a member of his family. "I would do it, I'm very clear about it," he said to Film Companion. He also quoted the example of how drunken driving has reduced drastically on New Year's Eve because of strict law enforcement across Mumbai. Well, he should also know that Mumbai Police does not go about shooting those who do not go by the rules. In fact, they have devised innovative ways to educate citizens about road safety.
In Soni, there is a scene in which the titular character, an impulsive police officer, thrashes an Indian Army official who misbehaves with her multiple times after she tries to take action against him for drunken driving. In a Rohit Shetty world, there would have been a jarring background score applauding the audacious move, but Soni proved that unlike Simmba, it is rooted in reality. The action is followed by consequences when a leaked video of the thrashing goes viral and Soni finds herself transferred to the police control department. Had a Simmba retaliated in a similar manner, his senior Singham would have come roaring to his rescue. But in Soni, Kalpana tries her best, though only within her administrative capacity, to avoid a harsher punishment for Soni. Despite not approving of her reckless ways, Kalpana empathises with Soni.
Empathy is a quality that evades the Rohit Shetty film. While he could pass off Simmba's quest for avenging his sister's rape as a product of empathy for the survivor, Soni establishes that empathy does not discriminate between victims and criminals. It cuts across boundaries and is applicable to all humans. Empathy allows one to look at criminals as victims of excesses committed by a flawed system or a polluted environment. Kalpana narrates to Soni an incident from when she was in Class Eight and saw a few cops mercilessly beat up an eve-teaser. She confesses that she still feels bad for the man because of the way he was howling, however despicable his actions may have been.
In the Simmba universe, however, such an empathy would have amounted to cowardice. But Soni clearly demarcates empathy from spinelessness by projecting Kalpana as a tough, uncompromising cop when it comes to performing her duties honestly. In her head, she is very clear about the jurisdiction of her job and derives a thrill from doing justice to her position. Though her husband, a more experienced police officer, accuses her of often discounting her unbending ways for emotional attachment to her juniors, she manages to toe the fine line between leniency and fellowship. She believes in bridging the gap between the judiciary and the criminals, rather than turning into either, whenever convenient.
One would argue that a police officer indulging in corruption or excess against criminals is also a victim of a defective system. Bajirao Singham, in charge of an inquiry into Simmba's extrajudicial killing case, clears him of all charges because he empathises with the rebellious cop, working around the loopholes in India's law and order. However, the empathy comes at the cost of an unfair inquiry. Shetty glosses over this act of corruption by painting it in heroic, Robin Hood-like colours. In Soni, Kalpana also tries to subvert the corrupt system by convincing her husband to go easy on her junior. But here, she strains to do so. Her desperation stems from helplessness and not any misguided notion of heroism. She also displays immense sympathy for Soni, an honest yet extreme cop, but mostly by standing by her as an emotional anchor. She is mature enough to realise that her persistent faith in the system does not stop her from consoling her juniors, who lack the patience to share that faith with her.
Technically, Simmba and Soni differ in terms of gaze. In the opening shots of Simmba, Shetty tilts the camera from bottom to top, marveling at Singh as he stands with his back towards the police station, hands on the waist. The attempt here is to make the audience look up to the hero (quite literally) who will go on to avenge all crimes against women. On the other hand, Ayer uses a lot of tracking shots for the two leading ladies of Soni, even when they go about doing their daily chores. The attempt here, clearly, is to make the viewers understand where the brave female police officers come from and why they need only some empathy — not some testosterone-fuelled man — to cut a respectable figure in society.
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