BOLLYWOOD: The harrowing lives of sex trafficking victims gets a realistic treatment in Tabrez Noorani’s debut feature. What makes the drama more compelling is Mrunal Thakur’s bravura performance as Sonia, the devoted sister who is ensnared in the sex trade while trying to find and rescue her sibling (Riya Sisodiya). Thakur rarely misses a beat as her character endures atrocities that are heart wrenching to behold.
Love Sonia’s first half is immersive and taut largely because of the plethora of thespian talent that brings credence to Sonia’s fraught and perilous journey. Sai Tamhankar is the woman who lies and lures young girls to Mumbai under false pretext; Manoj Bajpayee is the abusive and cruel brothel owner; Richa Chadha is its matron who gradually has a change of heart; Freida Pinto is a sex worker who hardened by her years has turned spiteful; Rajkummar Rao is the kind NGO worker; and Adil Hussain is the struggling, debt-ridden farmer and father who sells off one of his daughters only to lose it all.
Ravi Srivastava’s production design, with its bunk beds, the dingy quarters and secret entrapments, along with Lucas Bielan’s lenswork heighten the claustrophobia and highlight the prison-like environs.
Noorani, who has worked with NGOs to rescue victims, knows the world well enough to even touch upon the emotional trauma inflicted on the victims. It’s here that Love Sonia scores over other sex trafficking dramas such as Lakshmi. The lies, the false assurances, the blackmailing all play a role in gradual breakdown of Sonia’s spirit which is equal parts frustrating and fascinating to behold.
The ruthlessness of the trade and depiction of the abuse here is devastatingly effective, best evident in a scene where Bajpayee’s character offers Sonia to a client simply for a cigarette.
The film soon loses its sense of purpose once Noorani and his writers, Ted Caplan and Alpesh Vaja, with dialogues by Ritesh Shah, move from the Not Without My Sister narrative in India to show how widespread the trade is. With Sonia and Madhuri (Chadha) shipped off in containers to Hong Kong and US, Love Sonia wanders about as viewers expect the expected to happen even if it’s a bit to hard to believe.
Brief cameos by Mark Duplass and Demi Moore here add little to the narrative and instead seem more like a means to show the good Noorani’s earned in Hollywood.
But these inconsistencies can’t take away from Mrunal Thakur’s work who essays the character with conviction, capturing its naiveté, guilt and fractured spirit adeptly. If you love Sonia by the end of it, it’s because of her.