Director: Tabrez Noorani
Cast: Mrunal Thakur, Riya Sisodiya, Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadha, Rajkummar Rao, Anupam Kher, Sai Tamhankar, Adil Hussain, Demi Moore, Mark Duplass, Freida Pinto
“Imagine this is a movie,” explains Madhuri (Richa Chadha), the leading sex worker of Mumbai’s seediest brothel, to trembling greenhorn Sonia (Mrunal Thakur). “Every movie has to end, right? Keep acting till then,” she concludes, half-mentor and half-monster, herself having to enact a jaded madam assigned to exploit this small-town teenager’s naivety. She isn’t really this person – but around Sonia, she has to be.
Her words are eerily resonant. Acting is all about manipulation, and as the great Michael Haneke once said: film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth. For two-thirds of Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia – a bleak, deflating examination of the global sex trade network through the story of an Indian girl in search of her sister – a 17-year-old Sonia is surrounded by liars. Everyone around her is acting, and trying to fool her, in service of their life’s truth (survival). The popular actors are playing the roles. Her father (Adil Hussain), a desperately poor farmer who “sells” his younger daughter to a scheming landlord (Anupam Kher), lies to himself about her job prospects. The village stringer, a glamorous lady (Sai Tamhankar) who transports ‘fresh’ girls to the big city, deceives Sonia with a kind voice.
Sonia’s dreams of Mumbai – shots of VT station, Marine Drive, local trains and breezy promenades – are a systematic lie propagated by Bollywood movies; she is whisked away straight to Grant Road’s red light district. Madhuri recruits her with a bunch of manipulative pep talks. Rashmi (Freida Pinto), the star of the brothel, fakes an aura to convince Sonia of their place in society. The kingpin of the racket, remorseless pimp Faizal (Manoj Bajpayee), speaks to all his workers and clients in a disturbingly condescending tone, as if he were addressing a juvenile delinquent. One could argue this is reflective of the tone mainstream Hindi cinema employs to dehumanize its audiences, too.
Young Mrunal Thakur is excellent in that sense. She goes from wide-eyed to wary to flat-out numb – from child to traumatized adult – without being conventionally expressive.
In short, there are multiple horror films (characterized by celebrities such as Bajpayee, Chadda, Kher, Hussain, Pinto) unraveling in Sonia’s vicinity. Yet, the camera is always on her, the newcomer. They assault her so much with their pretensions and false promises that she fails to trust the three fleeting faces of integrity – an admirer from school, an undercover NGO activist, and a hotel manager who urges her to escape during her journey to Mumbai. In each case, she is a butterfly in a jar, unsure of how to respond to the lid being uncorked – an image reflected in the film’s lovely opening scene, where the village kids replace the lid with their cheeks so that the butterfly ends up “kissing” them. Sonia, of course, is the only one that flinches.
Her reluctance might also have something to do with the fact that these honest voices – most un-movie-like in their volumes – come from males. They probably remind her of her flawed father. Young Mrunal Thakur is excellent in that sense. She goes from wide-eyed to wary to flat-out numb – from child to traumatized adult – without being conventionally expressive. Somewhat reminiscent of singer Monali Thakur’s performance in Nagesh Kukunoor’s similarly themed Lakshmi (2014), she ensures that a film filled with liars feels agonizingly truthful. It is an unpleasant experience, but by no means an incompetent one.
Director Tabrez Noorani is unrelenting in his deconstruction of cinema, and by extension, humanity. Bad things happen in dark, closed spaces; good things, rare as they are, happen in daylight. The film is 127 minutes long, yet it feels like three hours – and not in a bad way. There should be no easy way to depict the business of sex trafficking. For almost an entire hour, we remain inside the smoky, smelly brothel with its assortment of “characters”. We see Sonia suffer; different men mount her, she is punished for trying to run away, her hymen is a point of lurid interest. The devastation moves from Mumbai to Hong Kong to Los Angeles – the Hong Kong portion looks a bit edited and unnecessary – and we wait for her movie to end. We wait for people to stop acting and start reacting.
Director Tabrez Noorani is unrelenting in his deconstruction of cinema, and by extension, humanity. Bad things happen in dark, closed spaces; good things, rare as they are, happen in daylight. The film is 127 minutes long, yet it feels like three hours – and not in a bad way
The conflict of such films is ingrained within their form. Why not just make a hard-hitting documentary instead of replicating the emotional resonance of one? Might this not qualify as an acute case of exploitation/poverty porn? Is it OK to raise social awareness by showing a girl repeatedly abused in an unforgiving environment? There comes a time in Love Sonia when everyone stops lying. It’s where her movie ends and life begins. At this moment, it becomes clear what the makers try to achieve by designing a story rather than suggesting one. It’s why even the symbols of hope here – cameos by Mark Duplass, Demi Moore – are cinematically familiar. Much like the symbols of horror.
In a way, it says that what we shouldn’t be distracted by are the protagonists; they are real. Noorani has produced titles like Slumdog Millionaire, Life Of Pi, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Hundred Foot Journey and Lion. In each of them, the hero is invariably a newcomer; Lion in fact lost steam as soon as little Sunny Pawar exited the film. Some may call this the white gaze or exoticization. But I look at it this way: The objects of hope, in these times, simply need to be more fact than fiction.