Director: Tabrez Noorani
Cast: Mrunal Thakur, Riya Sisodiya, Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadha, Freida Pinto, Rajkummar Rao, Anupam Kher, Sai Tamhankar, Adil Hussain, Demi Moore, Mark Duplass
Love Sonia begins with the image of a butterfly caged in a glass jar. The boy holding the jar has captured the butterfly for, what he calls, a kiss. Each time he opens the lid and presses his face against the mouth of the jar, the butterfly flutters on his cheek. A few scenes later, the boy remarks that after a few days, the butterfly starts to think of the jar as its home.
Imprisonment is a recurring motif in Love Sonia – a film about sex trafficking. Women live and work in cage-like rooms. At one point, they are packed into a container and shipped abroad. For some, the cage becomes psychological – so even when they are rescued from the brothel, they are unable to function because they have become the butterfly in the jar. They can't exist outside it.
As you can imagine, this is tough viewing. Debutant director Tabrez Noorani throws us into the deep end with the sisters Sonia and Preeti. When their impoverished father sells Preeti, Sonia follows her into the hell of a Mumbai brothel. She wants to rescue her but inevitably ends up in the cage herself. We spend a harrowing two hours with these girls as they are brutalized over and over again.
Films like this are a tightrope act. The material is inherently ugly. And the narrative needs to convey the horror and tragedy without making the viewer turn away. Nagesh Kukunoor's Lakshmi, based on the true story of a 14-year-old sold into prostitution, crossed the line and became too repulsive to watch.
Films like this are a tightrope act. The material is inherently ugly. And the narrative needs to convey the horror and tragedy without making the viewer turn away. Nagesh Kukunoor's Lakshmi, based on the true story of a 14- year-old sold into prostitution, crossed the line and became too repulsive to watch. Begum Jaan about a brothel during Partition suffered from the same heavy-handed direction. Thankfully Tabrez conceals as much has he reveals. He has spent more than a decade nurturing the project and working with NGOs. Which gives Love Sonia an authenticity – the brothel is a labyrinth of corridors, rooms and narrow spaces covered by saris where sex is traded. That image of these inhumanly narrow cubicles horrified me more than some of the more grotesque visuals.
Tabrez has also put together a terrific ensemble cast – Manoj Bajpayee exudes a controlled menace. He is effectively terrifying. Freida Pinto, as the vicious Rashmi, reveals a fire we haven't seen before. Rajkummar Rao's role is too bland to be noticeable but Richa Chadha brings heft. Sai Tamhankar is also strong as a woman who deals in women. Then there's Adil Hussain playing the desperate father who trades his own daughter. It's a testament to his acting that you come away feeling a sliver of pity for this man. And the film is anchored by the remarkable performance of Mrunal Thakur. She has a vulnerability and innocence that makes what happens even more heart-breaking.
But despite the talent and the good intentions, Love Sonia trips in the second half. The story moves from the gullies of Mumbai to Hong Kong and eventually to sprawling mansions in Los Angeles. But this doesn't have the same authenticity and impact as the Mumbai section. The characters have little depth – Demi Moore and Mark Duplass make a cursory appearance. The plot feels like it is designed to reflect newspaper headlines and everything gets resolved so easily that it seems implausible. But Sonia's tortured face will haunt you.