Cast: Mrunal Thakur, Adil Hussain, Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadha, Freida Pinto, Sai Tamhankar, Anupam Kher, Rajkummar Rao, Riya Sisodiya, Demi Moore, Mark Duplass
Director: Tabrez Noorani
A film about the horrors of sex trafficking is unlikely to be an easy watch, but in Love Sonia one scene more than others left me especially rattled. An apathetic pimp who has just come into possession of a helpless teenage girl trades her for a cigarette. That’s right, a cigarette. It’s a particularly ugly moment in a film that’s relentlessly grim.
Now the thing about movies that depict great suffering or exploitation is that they’re frequently guilty of being exploitative themselves. I could name a few Madhur Bhandarkar films to illustrate my point. Love Sonia, directed by Tabrez Noorani, treads that fine line carefully. Having worked with NGOs and victims of trafficking, Noorani is mindful in his pursuit of authenticity over shock value.
The film is the harrowing account of two sisters robbed of their innocence when one is sold by her debt-ridden father, and the other follows after her in the hope of rescuing her but becomes trapped in the flesh trade herself.
Mrunal Thakur is excellent as Sonia whose single-minded search for her sibling Preeti (Riya Sisodiya) exposes her to all manner of unspeakable horrors. This is a world where sex and drugs are intricately linked, and physical abuse is par for the course. In one scene a raid ordered at the brothel she’s been sold into reveals the shocking, inhuman conditions that victims must work in. Girls are practically shoved into a dark, dingy duct in the wall to escape the hands of the law. It’ll break your heart.
The brothel is also where our protagonist encounters an assortment of ‘colorful’ characters like Manoj Bajpayee’s cold-hearted pimp Faisal, and Richa Chadda’s toughened madam Madhuri, who might be hiding a compassionate heart. Both actors play their parts fearlessly, unafraid to walk on the dark side. The same is true of Freida Pinto who reveals no affectations at all as she nicely disappears into the role of Rashmi, a cynical sex worker incapable of sympathy owing to her own tragic backstory.
Strong performances from this ensemble – plus Adil Hussain as Sonia’s father, Anupam Kher as the local moneylender whom he sells Preeti to, Sai Tamhankar who whisks away the girl to Mumbai, and Rajkummar Rao as an earnest social worker – bring heft to the film.
The narrative loses some steam as the plot moves beyond India to show how far-reaching the tentacles of this network are. Scenes in which the girls are transported like objects in containers are heartbreaking, but the bits in Hong Kong and especially Los Angeles don’t deliver the same emotional wallop. Cameos by American actors Demi Moore and Mark Duplass feel gratuitous, and the resolution isn’t entirely convincing.
But even when some parts don’t work, the film seldom loses its grip on your attention. It’s held together by a deeply affecting performance from Mrunal Thakur who reveals an unusual combination of strength and vulnerability in the role of Sonia.
Ultimately Noorani has crafted a powerful film that you won’t be able to shake off immediately. It puts the horrors of confinement and abuse front and center, and compels you to feel everything from sympathy to shame.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Love Sonia.
Rating: 3.5 / 5