Love Sonia: A Western Portrait of What Human Trafficking in India Looks Like

Bollywood

Love Sonia: A Western Portrait of What Human Trafficking in India Looks Like

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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efore directing Love Sonia, Tabrez Noorani served as a producer for Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and last year’s Lion – films set in India but shot with a keen Western gaze. A genre that might be offensive at times, but is rarely damaging. Love Sonia employs the same look for India’s sex trade. But for the film, the source material for which is more fact than fiction, such a starkly American perspective is not only offensive and damaging – it is exploitative. Even though it is well-intentioned.

Love Sonia follows the journey of 17-year-old Sonia (a terrific Mrunal Thakur) as she searches for her sister, both victims of human trafficking. As is usual for films with a social message, Love Sonia’s closing slate accommodates numbers that inform us about the uncurbed sexual exploitation of women, especially minors. But can that justify the film’s overwrought poverty, trauma, and suffering porn?

For a film that intends to evoke awareness about the origin of sex trafficking, it’s unbearably lazy in its interpretation. For instance, we’re only told that the two young victims come from a drought-ridden village that is “somewhere, 1,400 km from Mumbai”.

Sonia and her sister Riya, are abused by their debt-ridden farmer father (Adil Hussain) for committing the crime of not being sons. At the mercy of the village money lender (Anupam Kher), he decides to sell off his fairer, better-looking daughter Riya to pay off his loans. The idea I suppose, is to suggest that impoverished rural families often have no choice but to resort to such extreme measures for sustenance. But the addition of the helplessness of the country’s farmers in the mix, feels like a gimmick.

At several points during Love Sonia, I found it hard to not question its real purpose: Is it really to highlight unimaginable trauma or fetishise it?

In its greed to be hard-hitting, the film remains completely oblivious of its broad strokes, ending up merely as a voyeuristic account of suffering. In its 120-minute-long runtime, Love Sonia is almost too conscious of how disturbing it needs to be. Every scene seems carefully designed to jolt the audience instead of making them contemplate. It treats the fact that you can’t look away from the screen in fear, as a victory – and that’s precisely this film’s weakness.

Love Sonia’s most objectionable scene comes before the interval, where a brothel owner (a caricaturish Manoj Bajpayee) trades a minor girl’s virginity for a cigarette. I can’t quite pinpoint what was more disturbing – the exchange that precedes the scene, the camera’s steely focus on deriving pleasure from the minor’s helpless face, or the film using her wails as its background score. To my mind, if Love Sonia was really trying to be true to the circumstances that most women forced into the sex trade endure, it would have been invested in exploring its aftermath. Yet it only exists to provide the film with its shock-value.

The only time the film shows flashes of sensitivity is when it focuses on the tender relationship between its women: the bond between the two sisters or between the brothel’s madam (Richa Chadda) and Sonia. But these are exceptions. The norm is the inauthenticity, the celebration of the American saviour complex, brought alive onscreen by Demi Moore. A shame, considering Love Sonia also has one of the most thought-provoking opening scenes this year – one that investigates the bittersweet relationship women forced into the sex trade develop with their fate.

At several points during Love Sonia, I found it hard to not question its real purpose: Is it really to highlight unimaginable trauma or fetishise it? If it was the former, wouldn’t it have been better to tackle the subject as a documentary?

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