Monday, September 17, 2018

Notes on Love Sonia: a journey into the heart of darkness (and a return)

[On another recent film I liked very much, which you can probably catch on the big screen for another few days at least]

The straightforward way to describe Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia is that it is a stark, hard-hitting film about human trafficking, told through the story of a village girl who travels all the way to Mumbai – and later, much beyond – in search of her sister, who has been sold into the sex trade.

But, and this is not to be flippant or to diminish the horrors suffered by the protagonist, I also saw Love Sonia as a twisted travelogue. As well as a coming-of-age tale (or a Bildungsroman, if you prefer) that follows a character’s journey from a small, circumscribed world to a much larger, never-before-imagined one – and from where she returns, far from unscathed, but wiser and more self-assured. Over the course of this narrative, Sonia (superbly played by Mrunal Thakur) goes from a rural setting where she and her sister Preeti could see the stars in a clear night sky to a dazzling international metropolis where she looks out a window and mumbles “Aasmaan se zyaada zameen chamak rahi hai”. There are many layers to this journey from innocence to experience, and the film prepares us for them: for instance, a guileless remark like “Tere liye toh ladkon ki line lagne waali hai”, spoken in a warm and happy context very early in the story, later comes to feel like a sinister foreshadowing.

But for all the superficial differences between the many places that Sonia travels through – from the feudal village to Bombay’s nasty underbelly to Hong Kong and Los Angeles – her experiences in these settings are very homogenous, and this is part of the film’s point. Outward appearances change, the sex trade becomes more "sophisticated" – from sweaty couplings in a filthy chawl to escort services in a luxurious LA penthouse – but the basic framework is the same: women are exploited and raped for business, virginity is preserved for months until the best buyer can be found, then surgically "restored" if needed, bribes are given to let illicit cargo through even in First World countries.

Unlike many conscientious social-message films, Love Sonia doesn’t get weighed down by good intentions – it has cinematic sense, is well-paced, the performances in the key roles are excellent, and the writing has an authenticity and an empathy that probably comes out of Noorani’s firsthand experiences with rehabilitating trafficking victims. The upshot is that a story which might easily have been cliché-ridden instead offers much that feels fresh, even when it involves stock characters such as the vicious pimp (Manoj Bajpayee in a razor-sharp performance, miles removed from his role in Gali Guleiyan) who blows hot and cold and lapses into ma-behen gaalis while trying to speak in English with a customer on the phone; or the hardened prostitute who has a tragic back-story of her own (Freida Pinto and Richa Chadda are both terrific in variants on this part); or the good-hearted social worker who goes undercover (a bearded Rajkummar Rao gets to play rescuer for once). Through all this, there is also the sisterhood theme, which begins with a specific, loving relationship between two blood-sisters but expands to the generalised experiences of exploited and savaged women finding degrees of kinship with each other. (And there is this recurring motif too: “sisters” being driven into positions of distrust, resentment or outright antagonism towards each other because they have been manipulated by men.)

I thought the film briefly hit a false note with a scene in Los Angeles, where Sonia’s firang client goes on speaking to her in English despite knowing she can’t understand most of what he’s saying; it felt too much like spoon-feeding for the audience. But even here, the slow build-up of the scene, its emphasis on mundane talk and niceties, is effective in its own way, letting us see that in the end this genial-seeming man in his big luxurious apartment is no different from the rough customers having their way with the girls in the filthy Mumbai brothel.

In short: lots to appreciate here (though of course it’s a given that you need high tolerance for dark and disturbing subject matter). Hope it stays in halls for another two or three weeks, but I’m not holding my breath.

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