Love Sonia – Tabrez Noorani‘s dark and daunting film on the human hell of sex trafficking got its digital release on Hotstar this week, hence enabling its reach to a wider audience after its limited release last year. First things first, it is a very difficult watch especially if watched on theatre projections and in a way am glad I waited to watch it in more comforting surroundings. It traces the life of a young seventeen year old girl Sonia as she falls into the trap of horrific sex rackets operating in Mumbai and is subjected to the harshest of physical and psychological abuse as her journey moves from the dungeons of Mumbai to the luxurious living spaces of Los Angeles.
On the way, she gets cheated and compromised on her honor and her very existence multiple times and every hand that pretends to comfort her only pushes her to further darkness, with the sanctity of her hymen becoming the only measure of her existential value.
Noorani has a serious harrowing tale to tell, and wants to ensure that he has picked up a solid seasoned cast to make it as authentic as possible. His best casting decision though is to get newcomer Mrunal Thakur to play Sonia, and the young actor is absolutely terrific in her depiction as the naive village girl, the horrified teenager caged in the dungeons, as well as the brave young woman who wants to go to any extent to protect her sister. Her’s has to be the most promising female debut of last year.
While it is a strong ensemble surrounding her, the ones who really stand out and make an impact are few! Adil Hussain tops that list as Sonia’s father and the depth of his craft is in brilliant display here with a complete range of emotions. Richa Chaddha is in good form too as the Madam of the brothel, who is both the abuser and the abused; but honestly we have seen a much better Shefali Shah in a very similar role in Nagesh Kukunoor’s very similar film Lakshmi. Sai Tamhankar also makes an impact. Sadly the rest of the cast try too hard and don’t realise the potential they have. Manoj Bajpayee and Freida Pinto especially disappoint doing everything way over than needed. Rajkummar Rao and Anupam Kher were honestly not even needed to play such insignificant characters. And the inclusion of Demi Moore, Mark Duplass and even Sunny Pawar is more of a trope to sell the film to the West than anything else.
Which brings me to the point that why the film particularly didn’t work for me, in spite of some of the terrific performances, especially from Mrunal. A gritty subject like this honestly needed a much better screenplay and a sharper direction. Inspite of capturing a lot of grotesque torture on screen and trying to almost play out like a horror, the film doesn’t really move you in the way it should. The dark is grueling, but never becomes as disturbing or haunting as it should have.
The foundation of the film is rather weak and the bond between Sonia and Preeti is so sketchy that you never buy in to why Sonia would go to that extent to find her sister. The naivity that Sonia projects and her complete lack of awareness of what she is getting into is also tough to relate to, given they show her as a school going computer literate girl. Ironical as it may sound, the most ‘watchable’ and impactful parts of story is the time she spends in Mumbai in its obnoxiously shady bylanes, but there again comparisons with Lakshmi are inevitable, and I personally think the later was far more horrific and disturbing (as it should have been for the stories that the respective makers chose to tell)! The trajectory of the film further goes to the realms of shallow as it moves from Mumbai to Hong Kong to LA – the narrative becomes more superficial and conflicts are too conveniently resolved. The closure of Richa Chaddha’s track is least convincing. The usage of memory flashes of Mrunal with her sister or the family at large and its depiction in all white comes across as jarring and trying too hard to make a point, as does the initial butterfly sequence to establish what is to follow in the film.
I wish the narrative and direction of the film was as strong as some of its performances. Love Sonia is an important film and possibly needed a better filmmaker overall to hit the nail hard and hurting. Like the lives of many girls who get lost in the dark hell, Love Sonia will possibly also disappear in the dark for eventually becoming a lost opportunity. But Mrunal Thakur will stay on, her Sonia too, and that is a win!
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