There are sightings all over the city — these slim, smart-looking, young women in khaki, guarding the women’s compartment in local trains, on bandobast duty at rallies, pacifying female complainants at the police station. They seem to be a far cry from the fiery, Kiran Bedi-inspired women cops seen in movies — fighting all kinds of villains,
A glimpse of what their lives are actually like, is caught in Ivan Ayr’s film Soni. The eponymous character is a determined young beat cop (played by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), who, when the film opens, is cycling down a dark road as a decoy in an operation to nab Delhi’s molesters. As can be expected a man pursues her, but when he grabs her hand, she beats him up. Before the other members of the team arrive, she has broken the man’s jaw. For this, clear act of self defense, she is reprimanded, while every woman watching the film, must have imagined what could have happened to them in such a situation, since not all of them are trained in self-defence.
Her boss, Kalpana (Saloni Batra) is an IPS officer, stern yet sympathetic to towards Soni and all the women who come to the station to lodge a complaint. Delhi’s overwhelming macho culture keeps tripping up these hard-working women, who are doing their jobs with total commitment to the extent of being taunted for the lack of a normal family life. Soni is advised by her well-meaning landlady to reconcile with her estranged husband, and to prevent harassment by going out wearing sindoor. Kalpana’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law keep reminding her that she is thirty-two and it is about time she started a family.
Worse is the condescending attitude of Kalpana’s husband, also a cop, who thinks she is too soft on her juniors, and if she is unable to behave like an IPS officer, why did she even choose that career? But she is not soft, he is, for always succumbing to pressure from higher-ups.
Soni is bullied by a drunk army officer, and when he touches her, she instinctively slaps him. He threatens to get her suspended and almost succeeds. She is transferred to the police control room, where female respondents are routinely harassed by male callers and they have no choice but to laugh it off.
Kalpana rescues Soni from that dull job, but she is soon embroiled in another enquiry, when the men she catches doing drugs in the ladies’ toilet of a restaurant turn out to be connected to a big wig. Kalpana’s husband is obviously, and unapologetically, a part of this VIP culture of Delhi, which make some people above the law.
Soni’s house is stoned by miscreants, and her husband turns up to tell her that she needs him living with her to prevent a recurrence; the unspoken thought being that women alone are vulnerable to violence, and the only way out is to depend on a man.
In the film, the two working women are cops, but still have to face a patriarchal social system day in and day out. Kalpana feels like a hypocrite when she tells her teenage niece, who has been ragged by boys at school to fight back, “They target you because they know you are strong,” she tells the weeping child, not quite convinced by her own logic.
When Soni is dumped back in the control room, Kalpana gives her a copy of Amrita Pritam’s autobiography called Raseedi Ticket (revenue stamp), so called because fellow writer Khushwant Singh told her that the story of her life was so inconsequential that it could be written on the back of a revenue stamp.
Even today, women can achieve whatever they set out to, but at some point have to get into a head-on collision with a hostile system, whether it is sexual harassment, being told she is a bad wife and mother if she concentrates on her work, and berated for being an inefficient worker if she pays attention to her family.
Very few women get the support system they need to manage home and work with equal competence. How many workplaces offer day care facilities for the children of staff? There is a provision for longer maternity and paternity leave, but how many people would dare avail of it and lose out on a few rungs of the ladder?
Remember the much reported interview with Indira K Nooyi, one of the few women who shattered the corporate glass ceiling. In an interview to David Bradley, she said, “I got home about 10, got into the garage, and my mother was waiting at the top of the stairs. And I said, “Mom, I’ve got great news for you.” She said, “Let the news wait. Can you go out and get some milk?
“I looked in the garage and it looked like my husband was home. I said, “What time did he get home?” She said “8 o’clock.” I said, “Why didn’t you ask him to buy the milk?” “He’s tired. Okay. We have a couple of help at home, why didn’t you ask them to get the milk?” She said, “I forgot.” She said just get the milk. We need it for the morning. So like a dutiful daughter, I went out and got the milk and came back.
“I banged it on the counter and I said, “I had great news for you. I’ve just been told that I’m going to be president on the Board of Directors. And all that you want me to do is go out and get the milk, what kind of a mom are you?”
And she said to me, “Let me explain something to you. You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother. You’re all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don’t bring it into the house. You know I’ve never seen that crown.”
Now, imagine the scenario if a man comes home and tells his mother that he has got a promotion?
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.