From the master Shyam Benegal’s satirically eternal classic MANDI 1983 that starred Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil to the so called commercial mainstream MARDAANI starring Rani Mukerji. Bollywod’s peep into the world of human trafficking, flesh trade, prostitution has been awarding and rewarding like the above cases and sometimes it has been disturbingly difficult to watch and overly sensational like Nagesh Kukunoor's LAKSHMI 2014. The subject of prostitution, human trafficking opens the gate or say allows the filmmaker to showcase the ‘naked’ truth and the complexities of human nature in those dark, stingy lanes of greed, lust, exploitation, machismo and more. Does the man behind the production of such on screen revolutions like SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), LIFE OF PI (2012) etc - Tabrez Noorani’s debut as a feature film director in LOVE SONIA walks the edgy lines of getting unnecessarily salacious and forcefully explosive? Or it finds triumph in delivering a powerfully arresting and thought provoking drama on world’s most primeval trade, let’s find out.
The writers Ted Caplan, Tabrez Noorani and Alkesh Vaja open the movie with innocence of the adolescent age where a young Amar (Abhishek Bharate) displays his favourite butterfly captured in a glass jar to his friends. He asks them to offer their cheeks to the butterfly as the unharmful and colourful bird tries to escape from the jar to get her freedom. After a couple of reels, Amar says, he can have the kiss of the butterfly and can even free her at his will. This forms the metaphor of the future happenings in this powerful story of love, longing, belonging, exploitation, lusts, greed, loss and hope”. Sonia (Mrunal Thakur) and Preeti (Riya Sisodia) are siblings in a remote village somewhere in North India presumably from the Hindi belt. Sonia and Preeti’s father Shiva (Adil Hussain), an impoverished farmer is fighting the cruelty of the nature and feudal system together, unable to repay the money to the land lord Dada Thakur (Anupam Kher), Shiva agrees to sell his pretty daughter Preeti to the land lord. For Shiva the dusky Sonia is good for nothing a liability and at the most can be used in fields for the ‘taaqat’ (physical strength, power) she poses. Preeti gets transported to Mumbai and when Sonia does not get any convincing answer from her father, she embarks on a journey to bring Preeti her sister back. She takes help from the wicked Anjali (Sai Tamhankar) who is involved in the trafficking business to bring Preeti back and lands up in the world of flesh trade in Mumbai. The dangerously shrewd Faisal (Manoj Bajpayee) and his den is a stingy dark underbelly of the world of prostitution/flesh trade. Faisal and his girls like Rashmi (Freida Pinto), Jiah (Aarti Mann) and others controlled by Madhuri (Richa Chadha). Rest is how Sonia finds hope in this utter darkness that is both powerfully striking to your senses and refreshingly stimulating to your soul.
The biggest triumph of Tabreez Noorani’s debut as helmer in LOVE SONIA is that the agonizing reminder of how underage girls are conspired into sexual slavery by an organized crime syndicate from which the chances of escape are minimal, is presented in a manner that controls the lurid and graphic requirements only to the limit of putting the point forward without playing with it for sensationalisms. After a while a constant undercurrent of female empowerment is felt as the specific horror of sex slavery engulfs the audience and at places holds them by throat. Yes there are some unsettling movements like the ‘virgin’ episode in overseas that can shake anyone but without any iota of doubt and with due respect to Shyam Benegal’s MANDI (1983)and Mira Nair’s remarkable brilliance SALAM BOMBAY (1988) that cannot be repeated, LOVE SONIA is an undeniable addition to that rare club of films dedicated to spreading awareness of flesh trade. In fact, Tabreez Noorani’s movie which is reportedly said to have inspired from real incidents takes the issue beyond India and what happens in Bangkok and America is shocking.
Boosting performance of the highest orders, LOVE SONIA sees Mrunal Thakur in her silver screen debut, diving into the soul of the 16-17 year-old Sonia and tearing you apart and in the end filling your heart with a smile and massaging your soul. Riya Sisodia gives her the proper support and excels in her part, the camaraderie between the sisters is pleasantly heartwarming.
Manoj Bajpayee is a scene stealer, the actor who just redefined nuances in GALI GULEIYAN deliver a terrific performance as Faisal. Richa Chadha is sensational as Madhuri who is fighting a lone inner battle. Freida Pinto is outstanding. Adil Hussain is brilliant as ever. Rajkummar Rao is endearing and the much needed ray of hope in this darkness. Sai Tamhankar is terrific as Anjali, she adapts to the requirements of her role with such ease that it seems its written for her only. Anupam Kher is first rate. Last but not the least, the magnificent Demi Moore comes in a cameo and leaves her ‘worthy’ mark.
Technically a well crafted picture with solid production values, LOVE SONIA would have been a song without a melody if Lukasz Bielan's lens has faltered anywhere. Lukasz Bielan's cinematography is a striking example of presenting the melancholy of the dark, disturbing underbelly of the ruthless human trafficking world. Martin Singer's editing is amazingly sharp. Ritesh Shah’s dialogues make the right impact.
On the flip side, the intoxication takes its time and in the pre climax, some abrupt scenes like the one involving Richa Chadha, the ‘easiness’ of Sonia’s encounter with Mark Duplass seem a bit hurried.
In the end, LOVE SONIA is worth every minute of its run, its heart wrenching, disturbingly powerful adage on exploitation, greed, lust, machismo, prejudice that ends with that much needed dope of hope. A tale that need to be told, so what if it pains you throughout, it offers a balm in the end as well.