Love Sonia opens in an impoverished, seemingly drought-ridden village that’s identified solely as ‘1400 km north of Mumbai’. The idea perhaps, as one would speculate, is to indicate how far removed this hamlet is from a global metropolis or to highlight the distance the two minor girls in the film are trafficked.
But as the movie progresses, you realise that the anonymity of the setting was, above all, an early sign that the filmmaker is going to use a broad brush to paint the ‘sex trafficking in India’ narrative with one stroke, without much regard for specifics or complexity, where the focal point will be a city, and the gaze will be a sympathetic Western one.
Inspired by real-life events, Tabrez Noorani’s directorial debut is no doubt well-intentioned, or perhaps even an important film to the uninitiated. But it opens an age-old discussion that has always plagued storytellers, especially those who deal with visuals: how does one depict human suffering and trauma without being exploitative?
Author, philosopher and activist, Susan Sontag once wrote, “As objects of contemplation, images of the atrocious can answer to several different needs: to steel oneself against weakness, to make oneself more numb, to acknowledge the existence of the incorrigible…” Assuming that to be the purpose, what does Love Sonia provide that a documentary could not? If it is simply ‘access’, then one wonders where revelation ends and voyeurism begins.
When you see nerve-racking human suffering — as Sonia, a teenage girl, is caged in a dingy, smelly brothel of Grant Road. It’s not only what is shown but what is omitted that is of equal importance. What we don’t see in Noorani’s film is a perspective that makes us contemplate, rather than shock us. The film rarely lets fear simmer in silence and lurk in corners. Instead, fear has an overwhelming presence, manifested through mostly caricaturish images and personas. That bringing to the fore what is fundamentally missing in this film: authenticity.
Love Sonia takes a hard look at sex trafficking which germinates in needy rural families, travels through the brothels of Mumbai and ends up in posh hotels of Hong Kong and lavish villas of Los Angeles.
Burdened by a loan, Shiva (Adil Hussain), a farmer, sells one of his daughter Preeti (Riya Sisodiya) to an opportunist moneylender (Anupam Kher). His other daughter Sonia (Mrunal Thakur) sets out on a journey to rescue her sister but gets trapped in the labyrinth of sex trade herself.
In the process she meets a wide range of characters, from pimps to older prostitutes (who have resigned to their fate) to rescue workers. Barring Thakur, who makes an evocative debut, all other actors. That from Adil Hussain, Richa Chadda, Freida Pinto, Rajkummar Rao to Lion’s child actor, Sunny Pawar — are known faces in the indie film festival circles.
But none make a lasting impression. To a suspicious mind, their sporadic presence in the narrative could be viewed as a marketing device to create an international buzz. After all Love Sonia did make its way to several Indian film festivals abroad before hitting the screens here.
There’s also a peculiar Western saviour syndrome that permeates the climax of this film. Granted that it is based on true events and the filmmaker can plead allegiance to reality. But what is the purpose of a film on human suffering that limits itself to a series of headline-grabbing incidents?
The good creeps up on the bad in Love Sonia. A receptionist sizes up a young girl at a hotel desk; later, he lends her some money and warns her to run away.
A beard man at a brothel picks from an assortment of underage sex slaves. Later, he turns out to be an undercover NGO-worker. Towards the end, a high-paying American client, after availing the services of a traffick Indian girl, casually gifts her a life-saving cell phone, making no big deal of it.
Humanity lurks in strange, seedy corners in Tabrez Noorani’s directorial debut. What could have easily slip into the trenches of reductive cinema is rescue by a dog upscaling of drama. The characters in Love Sonia may seem lift from newspaper leads. That is a drought-stricken Marathwada farmer, an exploitative local Thakur, an STD-afflict sex worker).
But their interactions reveal as much about their inner lives as they do about their social standings. One moment, you are hating on Manoj Bajpayee for playing a fiendish sex trader name Faizal. In the next, he delights you with a flurry of Hindi slangs deployed at a foreign buyer.
Directed By: Tabrez Noorani
Stars: Abhishek Bharate, Riya Sisodiya, Mrunal Thakur
Written By: Tabrez Noorani
Runtime: 120 minutes
Studio: Tamasha Talkies
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR LOVE SONIA
This is socially conscious cinema at its most powerful and important. It might be tough to witness, but it’s vital that we do.
It is powerful filmmaking, but I found questionable the packaging of sexual violence with the uplifting notes of mainstream entertainment.
Tabrez Noorani’s film is credible and forceful, with an excellent performance by Mrunal Thakur, but doesn’t quite escape the deadening air of educational drama.
The script does not let up…it gives them enough time to create a world around Sonia.