Tabrez Noorani boasts an impressive IMDB page with producing credits for the likes of Slum Dog Millionaire, Life Of Pi, Lion and the first season of Netflix show Sense 8. With Love Sonia, he moves to the directorial seat attempting to give a faithful, if unsettling account of India’s sex traffic trade, through eyes of a young, innocent peasant girl Sonia who finds herself embroiled in the depth of human depravity. A gruesome if absorbing narrative filled with distressing, eye-opening imagery, but the contrary high-end production values fails to make it all work as one cohesive piece.
In a barren Indian village, sisters Preeti (Riya Sisodya) and Sonia (Mrunal Thakur) live in poverty, slaving away on their family’s dry infertile land under the watchful eye of an abusive, domineering father. In desperation the father unknowingly/knowingly sells Preeti off to the local landlord who predictably sells her to a procurer in Mumbai. In a desperate bid to be reunited with her sister, Sonia goes in search for her, only for her to also fall at the hands of a ruthless pimp keen exploit her young age, priming her for sex work, smuggling her in ship containers from Hong Kong to LA, helpless at the hands of circumspect rich men.
Recognisable faces make their appearance throughout. Freida Pinto in top form as the unhinged fellow sex-worker Rashmi, too healthy looking and unblemished for her squalored bordello. An observation mirrored in Sisodia and Thakur’s characters, also too naturally polished looking to pull off the whole struggling peasant and subsequent grubby drug addict. Demi Moore makes a surprising cameo as a charity worker, as well as a beardy Mark Duplass in the guise of a genteel affluent kerb crawler.
Thakur is the film’s highlight, effortlessly carrying the weight of the whole film as the down-trodden Sonia, convincing with her deer-in the-headlights earnestness hides stealthy resilience and inner strength. Noorani’s efforts to zoom on India’s human trafficking crisis is commendable, but the bigger picture spells out a film of many contradictions. The director offers uncompromising tale full of brutality and real-life slummy grittiness but then juxtaposes it with a big-budget slicker than slick production; numerous crystal-clear panoramic views of the city and an out of place handsome cast ultimately makes things feel rather contrived.
The starkness of Sonia’s situation is problematically romanticized. In despairing moments of enforced sex, Sonia is anally raped to preserve her virginity and once she loses it she is surgical sewn up again to sold as a virgin, she closes her eyes instantly transported to visions of imagined blissfulness of the village and her family, which didn’t seem that pleasant to begin with. Or the all too frequent implausible acts of kindness from various by-standers, who seem to be horrible to everyone else, and of course its predictable ending of salvation that wraps things up nice and neat. A compelling enough watch, but it all falls apart once you put it under a microscope.
Love Sonia is out now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
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