Tabrez Noorani’s debut feature Love Sonia cuts like a knife. It brings to the fore the gut-wrenching reality of the sex trafficking trade, a dark and disturbing side that is as much a part of Mumbai as is the glossy and glamorous side that all but papers over the inconvenient truth. At the core of this film is a poignant and brave story of unconditional love between two sisters. Sonia and Preeti live in a hamlet 1,400 kilometers from Mumbai. Their father, a farmer, is the sole breadwinner and owes a fortune in debt to the local money lender. The daughters help their father till their agricultural land but there is no hope of repaying the crushing debt that has swallowed the family. On days when it is unbearable, the father contemplates hanging himself and comes home drunk. One day, the money lender arrives at their doorstep and threatens the father, saying he must repay his debt as soon as possible. Poverty compels him to sell his younger daughter to the money lender, from where she is transported to the sex trade in Mumbai’s Kamathipura locality. Circumstances lead the elder daughter too to the trade in sex trafficking. Thus begins 17-year-old Sonia’s journey to trace Preeti, and the audience’s journey into a world of darkness and distress.
The film starts with a sequence where a young boy, Amar, captures a butterfly and confines it inside a jar. He lets his friends and other village children take their chances in getting their cheeks caressed by it while it tries hard to escape every time the lid is opened. This scene, although simple, is a metaphor for the protagonists as they try to extricate themselves from a complex chain of events. Minutes into the narrative, we get a view of the small hamlet. The barren land, the shabby hut, the village open school and the scruffy Internet café have been framed in their truest form. The frames captured by the camera create an atmosphere of claustrophobia, discomfort and trepidation from the very beginning.
As the film unfolds, cinematographer Lukasz Bielan gives us glimpses into the brothels of Mumbai’s infamous red light area, Kamathipura. Aerial and panoramic shots of the city’s skyscrapers are juxtaposed against the narrow alleys and grim box-like rooms of the kothas. The sun0soaked Hong Kong landscape in the second half of the film is a breather after an hour of claustrophobia. It is not every day that we get to watch the realistic portrayal of life in this part of Mumbai. Here, sex workers do not lure their customers with filmy lines. There is no glamour; only a disturbing world, which for the women trapped inside is ‘normal’. The film proceeds at a quick pace. The narrative is gritty and some of the moments are so realistic and painful that your discomfort is physiological. This is one of those rare films that gets heavier and bitter but more and more hard-hitting as it unfolds. The mellow background score adds value to the narrative.
Director Tabrez Noorani deals with a bold and very difficult subject in his debut project. His meticulous research on the global sex trade network is evident. He has set his own bar very high. The best thing about Love Sonia is the note on which it ends. It leaves its audience with a bitter-sweet feeling. It tells us the truth in the most hard-hitting manner. At the same time, it offers a ray of hope. Noorani tells his story with honesty and simplicity, and the otherwise linear narrative is peppered with flashbacks that provide periodic relief and hope. It is one of those films that leave you distraught long after it is over.
Performance-wise, every actor seems to have ‘lived’ the character they’ve portrayed in the film. This is one of the USPs of the film. The film marks the debut of Mrunal Thakur, who plays Sonia, and Riya Sisodiya, who essays the role of Preeti. As a doting sister, Thakur proves herself and renders a heart-wrenching vulnerability through her performance. In most scenes, she lets her eyes do the talking. Sisodiya’s rawness, her subsequent coldness towards her sister and eventual meltdown adds to the arc of her character. She is effortless and does full justice to her role.
Richa Chadha as Madhuri takes home the trophy. She owns every frame that she appears in. She slips into her character with a seamless ease and portrays the underlying gentleness of an otherwise brash senior sex worker with aplomb. Manoj Bajpayee as Faisal, the brothel in-charge, is unpredictable, uncouth and shrewd. Rajkummar Rao’s Manish, an NGO worker, has a charming screen presence. An artiste par excellence, he lights up the screen with his restrained performance. Sai Tamhamkar as Anjali, the crafty pimp, is convincing. The dark horse of the film is Freida Pinto, who plays Rashmi. She vacillates between a strong and street-smart sex worker and a helpless victim of domestic violence. She deftly sinks her teeth into her character. Her body language and the way she speaks is worthy of mention. Adil Hussain as a frustrated father, Anupam Kher as Dada Thakur, Demi Moore as Salma and Mark Duplass lend support to the film.