The leading women of Love Sonia – Sai Tamhankar, Mrunal Thakur and Riya Sisodiya – share the brutal reality of what their film is all about. Here they are in conversation with Team Box Office India.
Box Office India (BOI): We all know that Love Sonia has a huge cast so how did all of you fit into it?
Mrunal Thakur (MT): This journey is very precious because we have all worked hard. It is not easy, it is not like I got it in one round. We had several rounds and I had to please Tabrez (Noorani), convince him that I was the Sonia. I remember, the scene where I am trying to find my sister Preeti was so difficult that I had to do a lot of permutations and combinations as a lot of actors were there. The first thing I noticed when I reached there was that Mrunal Thakur was one of the options for Sonia and that made me push myself. I made sure that I was on it and I really worked hard with Tabrez and Riya because we auditioned together. And for me and Riya, it happened instantly.
Riya Sisodiya (RS): It just clicked.
MT: Yes, from day one, we knew that she was my Preeti and I was her Sonia. It was not an easy journey but I am grateful for how it turned out. When I got to know that Sai was on board, it was just fabulous because it is a treat to work with her and Frieda (Pinto), Richa (Chadha), Rajkummar (Rao), the entire star cast is just so amazing. We had Manoj (Bajpayee) sir and Anupam (Kher) sir, and I have grown up watching them.
The experience was amazing and this film is very close to my heart because Tabrez has devoted more than 10-11 years to this project. Working with someone who is so constructive, so calm and so passionately focused on what he wants made me pull up my socks. It made me feel that if he is giving 100 per cent, I have to give 200 per cent.
Sai Tamhankar (ST): Apparently, they had watched Hunterr and that is how I got into this film. I was instantly drawn to the character because this woman… you really don’t know whether she is a nice lady or not a nice lady… what’s the deal with her! I liked the silver lining in the character of Anjali. I had never played a character like that before. And, honestly, when will you ever get the chance to abduct girls in real life? And a girl like Mrunal (Laughs)! I had fun portraying Anjali because she is a dangerous lady.
MT: Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be friends with a character like that (Laughs).
RS: I haven’t acted in a film or a show before but I have done a few commercials. So I went to audition for a commercial, and Jogi sir, our casting director, asked me to come in for a movie audition. I asked him to tell me more about the film but all he said was come to the audition wearing a salwaar-kameez.
I put on a lot of make-up and styled my hair and everything, and when he saw me he was, like, what have you done to your face? Go wash it off! I was sitting in the audition like a gaon ki ladki (Laughs). I gave the audition four to five times and then I auditioned with Mrunal but I still didn’t know about the movie.
What I know now is that Tabrez sir liked me for the part after the first round itself. During this process, I had just left the audition when the casting director’s assistant called me on the phone and said I had been shortlisted for the film. I asked her to at least tell me the name of the film and she said Love Sonia. I misheard it as Love ‘You’ Sonia and thought it was a Bollywood romance drama (Laughs). I was so unsure, especially when no one was telling me anything about it. I did not want my first film to be in that genre.
They told me that there were bigwigs from Hollywood involved in the film but I thought they were making up a story so I cancelled the meeting the following day. Apparently, Tabrez sir was not happy with that. They asked me to at least come in for another round. I did and listened to the story. I was so moved by it that I thanked God that I had gone in because I was in tears when I read the script. I thought ‘Dude, what was I going to miss!’ It was there in my destiny. Then I met Mrunal during the auditions and we clicked.
MT: It was meant to be.
RS: I have never acted before but when I acted with her, because she supported me, taught me, I went on to do what I did in Love Sonia. Thanks to her and Tabrez sir.
BOI: You said you didn’t want your first film to be a textbook Bollywood romance film while most aspiring actresses want that. What was your motivation, and even yours, Mrunal, as this is your first film, to choose an out-of-the-box option?
ST: I want say that it is so good that Riya is choosing her roles correctly.
RS: When I read the script, I thought this is it, I really want to be a part of this. The story and the cause that went with it clicked with me. I thought that if I want to start acting, this is something that I want to begin my career with. I was also motivated with so many talented names like Freida, Richa and Sai on the poster. It was a great way to start.
MT: I always wanted to do a film that would stay in people’s hearts. When people walk out of the theatre, they should say, Arre yaar, maine kuch seekha iss film se. I had done television before this film. I have played a chirpy, bubbly girl and I always wanted to play an out-of-the-box character.
Also this story… I am very attached to my sister in real life. I am sure all of us are. So when you think that if something like this happens to your sister even in your wildest dreams, you would do anything, you might even murder someone. So after reading the script for the first time – according to the company’s policy, they wouldn’t give us the script till we were locked for the film – the first thing the script made me feel was that I was Sonia and no one else can play Sonia better than I could.
I think that feeling is very important. I believe in ‘manifestation’. I was kind of ‘manifesting’. I always wanted to work with the best team and we had Resul Pookutty on the sets, Lukasz (Bielan), who was our DoP, Virginia (Holmes) doing our hair and make-up, and Shahid Amir doing the costumes. And they pay minute attention to every detail. I think it was a dream come true for me. As I said, I wanted to have a certain impact on the audience. Yeh film dekhne baad, koi yeh na bole ki Mrunal you have to come for an audition.
ST: Times are changing and even stars are choosing character roles, which is brilliant. I think it is a good sign that people are not sticking to stereotypical, glamorous roles. It is a huge change and we should embrace it with all our hearts.
BOI: Love Sonia is a socially relevant film. Do you think movies make an impact?
ST: Movies, especially in our culture, definitely make a huge impact. And we want this film to stay with the audience. Matlab main yeh nahin kahungi ki kal aap jao aur kisiko adopt kar lo. Par at least you think when you see a small girl on the street, you will bother to ask, where are your parents? What do they do? Do you go to school? What do you do for a living? Itna bhi agar logon ne kiya toh humari jeet hai. We don’t bother. We are too caught up in our own worlds.
It is very disturbing to see what a human being can do to another human being. We cannot imagine the things that people do to other people. It is heart-breaking. So I hope that people get alert, a little bothered, a little disturbed, a little restless with this film and it stays with them for the longest time.
MT: It could be your sister, your daughter, your friend, it can be anyone. But you know Sai, after we were done with our London Indian Film Festival, we all went out to dinner. I think you had left by then. One of my friends came to me and said, ‘Mrunal, I am on the verge of adopting a child.’ It was their third child. ‘I am going to give a new family, a new name, a new life and a new future to a girl.’ Isn’t that amazing?
Also this film motivated Tabrez’s friend to fulfill a dream she had. She wanted to launch an NGO but was too lazy to actually do something about it. Just three months after watching this film, she launched her own non-profit organisation and they have saved 11-13 girls, which is an incredible situation for us. This film is not only about a cause but it is also a beautiful bond between two sisters. As an actor, if you can connect in those two hours to Sonia’s journey and you think about your sister even once, my mission is accomplished.
BOI: A lot of actors say ‘we can relate to the character only when we sink our teeth into it’.
ST: For me, it is never like, agar main waisi hu to main karungi. In fact, if I am not like that character, I am more attracted to it. Anjali had probably been a prostitute and now she is a pimp. So there are no similarities between Anjali and me. That’s what shakes me up and motivates me to jump into the character and portray it. So mere liye to aisa nahin hai ki if there is nothing in sync, then I wouldn’t want to play that character. Ulta mere liye aur challenging hai and I will embrace it with everything I’ve got.
MT: My dad is a banker, and when I was 6-7 years old, my father came home very upset. He said that a farmer had committed suicide. I didn’t even know what suicide meant. He explained to me that sometimes when people don’t have money, they kill themselves or they have to sell their jewellery or sell their daughters. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what is this?’ So I grew up knowing what was happening in the world. I think that’s why, when the script came, I had a gut feeling that it had to be me.
It is also a very powerful role. Not all newcomers and debutante actors get to perform a character like this. I have to thank Tabrez because this is the biggest risk he has taken. No director would risk a film like this with a newcomer with a television background. I am quite grateful to Tabrez.
RS: I want to give credit to my younger sister. I did not portray my character exactly like she is, but somewhere down the line it is somewhat like her. She is stubborn, she is prettier, she doesn’t work. So I got the chance to perform her character and I can’t really talk about reliability and how actors relate to their characters as this is my very first film. I can relate to it because of my younger sister but in future I would like to do projects that are different from my life. I would love to perform roles like that.
BOI: Can you take us through the process while shooting for the film? What ground-work went into it?
MT: As soon as we got to know that Riya and I were both are on board, Tabrez booked our flight to Kolkata. We spent three to four days in Sonagachi, the city’s red light area. Tabrez made sure he didn’t rehearse the lines with us much because we would get mechanical. It was more important for us to observe these ladies. He believes in the power of observation.
He said when you go to the brothel, click a lot of pictures and ask them their stories. Also, he warned us that they would not be very open to us. They would be a little hesitant as they don’t trust people very easily. They were quite open to us on day two or day three. They shared their stories and the stories broke my heart to the extent that I felt unwell.
RS: We were depressed and wanted to go back home.
MT: We observed their body language and the kind of slang they use. We also visited their houses, which were very small, just a room with a bed that was elevated on bricks. I asked her why it was elevated and she said, didi jab clients aate hai toh mein aur client upar rehte hai aur bachha aur pati neeche sotey hai. I asked her how many clients she served every day and she said, ‘If there is a festival or a cricket match, then 40-50 clients per day.’ How much money did she earn? ‘That depends, if he wants to beat us, the amount is different, and if he wants us to dance, the amount is different.” How different? She said, “30 rupees or 50 rupees.” When I asked her why so little, she said, “Woh bhi humari malkin le leti hai.” If someone buys a girl in a brothel, they pay around `20,000. Uss ladki ko kaha jaata hai yeh jo karza hai tujhe utarna padega.
Also, these women are made to feel worthless. They get teenage girls pregnant to use their children as leverage over them. Their children are taken away as a means to control these women. And they are forced to work under all sorts of circumstances, even when unwell or pregnant. These are the stories we heard.
We always want Gucci products, Prada products, a luxury car or house, but these women are struggling to live. It made me very grateful for what I have. Some girls manage to run away from there but their parents abandoned them, saying they are dead to them.
RS: Some girls get married at the age of 15 or 16 and run away from home. The boyfriends or husbands then kidnap them and sell them, especially girls from Bangladesh and Nepal.
MT: They don’t even know any Indian languages. Nowadays, girls meet guys online but they don’t know who is really sitting at the computer, on those social networking sites. Through this film, it is very important to create awareness and offer solutions. Tabrez also made us visit a village two and a half hours from Mumbai as in the initial scenes we play a farmer’s daughters.
RS: We saw how they store grain and everything. They don’t know whether it is going to rain or not. We also had lunch with them.
MT: It was quite a journey.
ST: This is the same world where we sit and talk about feminism, yet over there, things like this are taking place. It is weird.
MT: When we were there (at Sonagachi), people just stared at us. It made me feel like somebody was raping us with their eyes. I was so disgusted that my blood pressure dropped and I told Riya I couldn’t do it any more.
RS: There was one more thing. When we asked the women what had happened to them, they started laughing. They said, ‘Tujhe sachhi mein jaan-na hai, sun ne ke liye taiyaar ho?’ They were telling their friends that chalo inko bata dete hain.
MT: They have become so hardened that they have no tears left. Imagine a 17-18-year-old child saying she has two children.
RS: After meeting these women, you feel very grateful for the kind of life you have.
ST: Yes, it is a very dark reality.
MT: This was the process. Tabrez always made sure we didn’t rehearse our lines too much because he wanted it to come out very naturally.
BOI: The film was screened at the Bagri London Indian Film Festival and the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne. What kind of response did it receive?
ST: There were a couple of very interesting responses. We used to have Q&A sessions after each screening. One woman said she needed a drink after the film was screened and would then come back for the Q&A. People were disturbed, they were in tears and they were not able to talk. When we went to London, we did not attend a single screening because nahi dekh sakte hai aap baar baar lagaataar. Mrunal can watch it, but not me. I have still not watched the entire film. I don’t know if I will ever watch it. It is so heart-wrenching.
MT: A film like Love Sonia is very important to me as it taught me what is actually happening out there. Do you know that many girls get trafficked in a container? 10-15 girls are put inside a container with oxygen masks, food and diapers. They have to eat, pee and poop in the container for 12-13 days while they are injected with drugs. Out of these girls, only two or three make it out alive because there is no light or anything else inside.
The pimps are happy that they have ‘at least two girls’ whom they can sell in places like Hong Kong and Los Angeles. After the first client, they get the girls back, stitch up their genitals and re-sell them to get more money. People are not aware of thing like this. In fact, at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, we had Rajkumar Hirani sir and Vicky Kaushal who said this was a disturbing film but disturbing in a good way. People should know the reality. We need to stop these rackets and identify the men responsible for trafficking girls. I saw a couple of men in tears. I thought, “Wow, this is what we can create!” It was a fantastic experience!
BOI: The film was to release earlier this year. But with the responses it has been getting, do you now think it will get a better theatrical release in India now?
ST: In a way, yes. At least, the record shows that. But I always believe that jo hota hai, who achche ke liye hota hai. Now things are going the way we wanted them to. It definitely helps to have your film screened at international film festivals. It generates word-of-mouth and people get to know about it. It is a good thing that the film did not release earlier. Things are happening exactly as we wanted them to.
MT: (Cuts in) Exactly! I would not have watched Masaan if it had not travelled to the Cannes Film Festival and other film festivals. Of course, word-of-mouth helps a film. People usually want to watch a film that is light and has a bit of comedy, drama, songs and dance. But you also need to be aware of what is happening in the world! Films like Love Sonia come once in a blue moon. People should watch it. I really enjoyed watching Spotlight.
BOI: What are your expectations from the box office performance of this film, which peopple term as a festival film?
ST: Honestly, I am not a numbers girl (Laughs). I don’t believe in numbers. Tomorrow, if I want to publish that Love Sonia has made 100 crore, I can do it. I can easily convince people about that. But, with this film, especially, we do not want to brainwash people. If we succeed at this, it will mean more than box-office collections to us; it would be priceless. We are not looking at numbers. I know that when you make a film, numbers are important and you should be concerned. But, honestly, we are not bothered.
MT: Numbers will only matter when a number of girls will be saved.
BOI: Can you tell us about the digital presence of the film? Will it be available on Netflix after its theatrical release?
ST: I am sure it will.
MT: Of course, it will.
ST: Yes! Yes (Laughs)!
BOI: In that case, do you think its reach will increase? What do you think the response will be like when it reaches other countries?
MT: First, it is not a national cause. It is a global issue. Second, it would be available to a wider audience in the digital space. I was very upset when the film was rated ‘A’ because the girls who are trafficked are 11-year-old kids. So, it is very important for them to know what is happening. There can be certain alterations here and there. I would like 11- and 12-year old girls to watch it. At least, they should get to know from their parents what it is about.
ST: Ideally, I hope the film kicks off a movement. Ideally, I want people to stand up and try to stop the wrong things that are happening around them. Itna ho jaaye toh mazaa aa jaayega (Smiles)!
MT: Ignorance is the root of all problems.
RS: 11-and 12-year old girls are raped by boys who are below 18 years of age. The biggest example is the 2012 gang rape case in Delhi. One of them was a minor. We need to spread awareness.
MT: We need to have strict laws too.
ST: Yes, it is high time.
MT: If we have strict laws, no one would dare to do something like that, isn’t it?
ST: It is just not there in our blood to follow the law. We know how to break the law with the thought ki dekh lenge. This is very deeply rooted and it will take a lot of time for things to change. But I hope it happens.