Love Sonia, 2018.
Directed by Tabrez Noorani.
Starring Mrunal Thakur, Riya Sisodiya, Freida Pinto, Sai Tamhankar, Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadda, Anupam Kher, Demi Moore and Mark Duplass.
When her sister is sent to Mumbai by her father in order to work, a young woman decides to follow her sibling, only to discover that she has been sold into sexual slavery.
Sometimes, movies are designed as pure entertainment. Sometimes, they exist to make a political point. Other times, though, they serve as exercises in raising awareness of issues that do not get enough spotlight within modern discourse. It’s the latter purpose that drives Love Sonia, in which debutant director Tabrez Noorani channels his own experience working with NGOs into a harrowing depiction of sex trafficking in India. The film is gruelling, hitting hard enough for the message to truly sink in.
At the centre of the narrative is acting newbie Mrunal Thakur as the title character, dismissed by her father (“we are unfortunate because you are unattrative”) as he tries to turn around the fortunes of his isolated farm, while managing his debts to a shady criminal gang. Soon, Sonia’s sister Preeti (Riya Sisodiya) is sent to Mumbai. When Sonia is told she has gone there to work, she organises her own travel across the country.
What follows is a distressing descent into the criminal underworld, as Sonia’s innocent eyes are quickly muddied by the horrors of the industry into which she is forced. Thakur’s performance is terrific, as a woman who is physically fragile, but driven by the firm emotional belief that her father would not have forced her sister into this fate and that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for what has happened. The creeping power of Love Sonia is in watching Thakur gradually fracture with fear as she gains a growing appreciation for the darkness of her predicament.
Even more shocking, though, is the acceptance of the situation by those around Sonia. Freida Pinto, who met Noorani on the set of Slumdog Millionaire in his capacity as a line producer, is chilling in her detachment as Rashmi – a woman who has grown jaded by her long-term predicament. Manoj Bajpayee’s brothel owner Faizal is terrifying in that he exercises control over his workers via slick manipulation rather than through fear of violence. These women believe that they have no choice but to stay, and that’s a brutal blow to deal to the audience.
Noorani’s direction plunges the audience right into the heart of this cramped, filthy world. It’s as if the viewer is permanently stooping slightly to creep through haphazard doorways and squeeze into tiny, inadequate living quarters. Through the lens of cinematographer Lucas Bielan, there’s a stark contrast drawn between the corridors of sleaze and the parochial beauty of the farm on which Sonia and her sister were raised. Later on, the story spreads its wings and travels to Hong Kong and Los Angeles, showcasing just how far the influence of these criminal gangs extends across the globe.
This is a bracing and unsettling movie that never pulls a punch in depicting the horror of sexual slavery. It does, however, feel a little overly and clunkily didactic in the third act when a number of NGOs become a part of the narrative, with Demi Moore popping up for a brief cameo – she herself works with similar campaign organisations. There are also a few swerves into overly lurid crime-thriller territory – a scene of threat by serpent feels like a particularly unwelcome diversion into trash – that rather undermine the serious messaging on show. When it hits, though, it hits very hard indeed.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.