Cast: Mrunal Thakur, Freida Pinto, Sai Tamhankar,Mark Duplass, Manoj Bajpayee, Rajkummar Rao, Richa Chadda, Riya Sisodiya, Anupam Kher, Adil Hussain, Demi Moore and Sunny Pawar
Director: Tabrez Noorani
Rating: 3.5 Moons
Be prepared to love Sonia, literally. TV actress Mrunal Thakur is heart-achingly disturbing as innocent, trusting Sonia in search of her sister Preeti (Riya Sisodiya) who was sold into the horrific world of prostitution and gets dragged into the dark underbelly of the sex trade herself. Director Tabrez Noorani’s film is no Bollywood entertainer. It leaves you shell-shocked. And haunted by terrible memories of what you just saw in the end. But in the day of meaningful cinema, scripts with content and films that have a message, Love Sonia is a winner.
Debt-ridden farmer Shiva (bitterly portrayed by Adil Hussain) is compelled to sell his elder daughter Preeti to lascivious money lender Baldev Singh (Anupam Kher, silky smooth but utterly despicable) in a drought-prone village. The girl gets taken to Mumbai “for a job” but is broken into prostitution by Anjali (Sai Tamhankar) who acts as the go-between for Baldev and the sadistic brothel owner Faizal (Manoj Bajpayee, evilness personified). The viewer is spared Preeti’s story, her violation and dehumanization because these scenes are reserved for Sonia. You watch in horror because they are gripping and unimaginably bestial.
Sonia sells herself (“Give my money to my father,” she says) to the landlord and accompanies Anjali to Mumbai in search of Preeti but soon finds herself in Faizal’s house of ill-repute at the city’s notorious Kamathipura red light area. Faizal is delighted with the virginal 17-year-old (“Is her seal broken?” he almost lovingly asks Anjali) and plans to sell her to clients abroad who pay big money for nubile Indian girls not yet initiated into sex. Then, Sonia’s virginity is savagely checked by brothel madam Madhuri (Richa Chadda, wistfully beautiful but hard as nails) who forcibly holds the young girl down and… yes, puts her hand in there!
The scene sets the gritty tone for whatever happens in the depraved criminal underworld of sex trafficking. From Mumbai to Hong Kong to LA, it’s the same, only the men are considerate there. Here, Sonia is finally and violently taken on the back seat of a car, the trauma of her surrender made all the more disturbing by Faisal who sells her for a cigarette and tells the client, “Back door entry only, remember not to break her seal.” Sadly, these are the shocking realities of the sex trade, and driving the message home to a broken Sonia is the brothel veteran Rashmi (Frieda Pinto, looking more into the trade than Richa Chadda) who has a tale of betrayal of her own. There’s also Rajkummar Rao, Bollywood’s flavour of the season, playing an NGO worker taking on pimp and police to rescue the underage girls being forced into the trade. And Selma (Hollywood diva Demi Moore, not vivacious anymore, but beautiful and mature with wrinkles and crow’s eyes) who helps victims of sexual abuse rehabilitate themselves in LA.
The cast is described as ensemble, but that’s not true, the actors don’t all have equal time and space on screen, which is what an ensemble cast means. This film belongs to Mrunal Thakur all the way. But it’s an eclectic cast all right. Each one plays their role with gut-wrenching precision like it was really their profession. Director Tabrez is an old Bombay boy, he’s India’s man in Hollywood, and he’s visited the seamy underworld of sex, drugs, violence and exploitation in person and also when making Slumdog Millionaire ten years ago. That was also when he came up with the idea of Love Sonia and ten years later made it his directorial debut. The story is based on true events, the credits say, and this is indeed the fate of millions of girls from India who get trapped and exploited by the sex trade. It’s a sad reality but makes for a gripping film.