The debut feature of Slumdog Millionaire line producer Tabrez Noorani, Love Sonia presents a far darker picture of the brutal effects of severe poverty in modern India. A brutal exploration of the barbaric sex trafficking trade, Noorani’s film makes it shamefully plain that this is far from a localised phenomenon towards which Westerners can turn a blind eye — it’s a global outrage destroying myriad lives to this day.
The youngest child of a farmer (Adil Hussain) scrabbling for survival on the arid earth of his remote village, Sonia — an exceptional Mrunal Thakur, now 26 but playing a role more than ten years younger — is presented as a lively, popular schoolgirl, dreaming with her beloved sister Preeti (Sisodiya) of Bollywood fame, and making tentative first steps into romance with local lad Amar (Lion’s Abhishek Bharate). Her world comes crashing down, however, when her father, seemingly at breaking point, gives Preeti to local criminals in an attempt to settle crushing debts. They swiftly transport her to Mumbai, and the grimy, violent underworld of its thriving sex industry.
Hellbent on rescuing Preeti, Sonia is soon also trapped in this torrid world, and Noorani pulls absolutely no punches in depicting every brutal detail of an inhumane, if all too human, trade. Although at times the unrelenting horrors of the brothel threaten to overwhelm and numb, Noorani’s unflinching gaze nonetheless allows for nuance; a pimp who poses as protector and plays favourites; a hardened prostitute who, far from shielding the new girl, delights in cruel torment.
An angry cry that's impossible to ignore.
Riven with disease, and craving scraps of true affection, these exploited women are depicted as broken and listlessly bitter, made cruel by fear at the hands of men beyond redemption. Nonetheless their individuality still glimmers, not least in Rashmi (Slumdog’s Freida Pinto shining in a supporting role), who pesters to be Sonia’s surrogate sister and shoulders the burden of her own tragic backstory. It’s a miserable, depressing, shocking scene, and seemingly hopeless — “Everyone is part of this,” observes a crusading activist flatly as the local police thwart his attempts to stage a rescue.
And indeed, everyone is, as the film’s third act pointedly illustrates. Transported from Mumbai’s fume-clogged streets to Los Angeles’ equally smog-ridden palaces — not by first-class plane ticket but pitch-dark shipping container via Hong Kong — Sonia, Rashmi and their fellow sex workers find themselves in the rarefied atmosphere of Hollywood’s glossiest parties, yet still paid-for property, as trapped as they ever were, however many smartphones and gifts are proffered. Noorani — driven by his own work with non-government agencies to liberate trafficked women and girls — has a clear message to relay.
Perhaps inevitably, however, after the unspeakable misery of the Mumbai brothel, it’s hard not to relax a little as the wide, open streets and waving palms of LA cross the screen — and perhaps too neatly it’s the City Of Angels that does ultimately offer respite for its women in the form of rehabilitation and hope (hello Demi Moore, cameoing as activist/counsellor Selma). Yet, the Western world is by no means off the hook. Anchored by excellent performances throughout and an admirable candour, Noorani’s angry cry is one impossible to ignore.