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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Love Sonia, Review: Sister’s sibling search sifting sordid sex surroundings

Love Sonia, Review:  Sister’s sibling search sifting sordid sex surroundings

Official statistics show that there hundreds of thousands of sex workers in India, and many of them are below 18. Being a sex worker is not a crime, but soliciting and living of the earnings of sex workers are clear crimes. That does not deter the ‘businessmen’ who run brothels and sex rackets. 270 girls/women go missing every day in India and most land up in the flesh trade. Only 1% of them manage to escape or get rescued by non-government organisations (NGOs). Love Sonia is the story of one such lucky girl (well two, to get underway in the film).

Inspired by a true story, it is treated like a regular film, except for the day, time and place captions down the right corner of the screen, and the startling (to some) statistics that are displayed before the end credits roll. Love Sonia, as we could guess, is the signing off line in an email from Sonia, and would be usually written as Love, Sonia. But the film skips the comma and retains the continuity. It is an unrelenting film, with expletives galore, fleeting glimpses of sordid living conditions and all forms of paid sex, ‘natural’ and ‘un-natural’. The borderline between revolting and titillating is blurred as scene after scene shakes you up, so do see it, but be prepared to encounter the oldest profession in the newest, most detestable light. India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) had suggested numerous cuts, but the makers went to the Film Censorship Appellate Tribunal, where it was passed without any visual cuts, albeit with many cuss-words muted.

Written by Noorani, Ted Caplan and Alkesh Vaja, with Hindi dialogue by Ritesh Shah, the film begins in Western India. Facing recurring years of drought, Maharashtrian farmer Shiva is in heavy debt. When the local money-lender Baldev Singh 'Dada Thakur' demands repayment,  Shiva has nothing to pay him back with. He has two daughters, though, and in a weaker moment, he sells off one of them, Preeti, to Dada Thakur, who sponsors the procurement of underage girls, put into prostitution under false hopes finding them jobs, in distant Mumbai. Preeti suffers her faith. Unaware of what has happened to her, her sister Sonia tries to trace her with the help of email, but fails.

She then offers herself to Dada Thakur for being sent to Mumbai, in the hope of tracing her sister, completely unaware of what fate has befallen Sonia. Thakur makes some more quick bucks and asks his agent, Anjali, to send Sonia to her destiny. Anjali brings her to Mumbai, and plants her in the red-light district. The place is run by Faisal Babu, who is a crazy, ruthless, philosophising overlord who starves his girls, handcuffs them and makes them clean toilets if they disobey. Faisal is delighted to receive another virgin (after Preeti), whom he can use in other ways, till he gets the price for her virginity.

During her stay there, Sonia meets Madhuri and Rashmi, who have been there for many years. Both have an ambivalent attitude towards her, but that might change. Local police are on the take. An NGO worker Manish makes several undercover visits, but is unable to make much headway in rescuing girls under 18 (the law takes serious note of girls under 18 years of age who are made to work in the flesh trade). Faisal arranges for Sonia to meet Preeti, but Preeti is now a changed person, hooked on drugs and the lifestyle which is the demand of her profession. Their father comes to Mumbai and spends days after days trying to trace them, but makes no headway. One day, Manish conducts a raid with the help of the police and manages to rescue Preeti, but Sonia is sent off, first to HongKong and then to Los Angeles. Thakur intends milking the fact that she is young and her hymen is intact. Even after she loses her virginity, her hymen is stitched-up to exploit the demand for virgins twice over. In Los Angeles, her guardian angels smile on her, and things look-up for the first time.

Two of the world’s largest anti-trafficking NGOs-- CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking) and Apne Aap Woman Collective Worldwide advised on the project and were consultants in making the story as near real as possible. Both are given due representation in the film. Love Sonia’s executive producers include Pravesh Sahni and Noorani’s India Take One Productions and Hannah Zhang, from L’Chaim Investments, who was instrumental in the funding of the project. Some portion of the film has been shot is HongKong. A couple of tracks, like the raids and the scene of arm slashing at the US party could have been better scripted. Also, it is surprising that 14-17 year-old school-going girls in present day India can barely speak on word of English.

Noorani is a nephew of Zafar Hai, the ad and documentary filmmaker from the 1980s and 90s. His early influences have been Antonioni, Visconti and William Wyler, with his parents, and Star Wars and Sholay, with his friends (Baldev Singh Thakur is a giveaway). “When my mother was pregnant, apparently all she did was watch movies and eat chocolate,” Noorani told a magazine. No wonder he manages to make an impact with his first foray.

Visually compelling aerial shots and pans across the Mumbai coastline, the hustle and bustle of the overcrowded streets and the red-light areas, the attempted escape of Sonia who is befuddled by cars cornering her as she tries to flee, the sharp contrast between the cultures of Mumbai, HongKong and Los Angeles, even in the matter of how they treat call-girls, the four frame cuts suggesting sex and nudity, the wails instead of the views, he is adept at his art. As influences, one can cite Mahesh Bhatt and Slumdog Millionaire. Take the stand of the CBFC, and you might not even sit through the film. On the other hand, if you concur with the FCAT, you might have a lot of food for thought.

Mrunal Thakur (TV’s ‘KumKum Bhagya’) was cast in the title role after a year-long search of over 1,500 girls. She reminds us of early Pallavi Joshi and Sonali Kulkarni, but holds her own in a complex role that traces her plight from the age of about 17 to about 19.  It’s very good debut. Riya Sisodiya as 14-16 year-old Preeti, is another debutant. She credits Adil Hussain and Sai Tamhankar with giving her many tips during shooting and dubbing.

Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire, You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) as Rashmi is sexy and into character. Manoj Bajpayee (Satya, Shool, Satyamev Jayate, Gali Guleiyan) as Faisal does not bring any novelty to his role. He is again made to abuse and screw-up his face, pour sarcasm and even threaten Sonia with a snake. Rajkummar Rao (Newton, Bareilly ki Barfi, Stree) as Manish makes a cameo appearance, though there was reason enough to give him a meatier role. Sai Tamhankar (Black and White, Ghajini, Hunterr) as Anjali called herself the Fedex when asked about her role, since she is the delivery agent or human courier service. A veteran from the Marathi industry, she is confident and natural. Adil Hussain (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Life of Pi, English Vinglish) as Shiva wins both sympathy and hatred for his on-screen acts, but you always empathise with his easy-flowing natural style.

Richa Chadda (Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Gangs of Wasseypur, Masaan) as Madhuri, Faisal’s special woman, shows she can pull off lewd stuff with as much aplomb as sensitive roles. Demi Moore (Indecent Proposal, Charlie’s Angels, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) as Selma has a two scene cameo, and does not need to do much. Mark Duplass (Zero Dark Thirty, Parkland, Blue Jay) as Sonia’s American customer flaunts his huge apartment and shows sympathy for his sex partner Sonia, and even offers her a mobile phone as a gift. Lucky Duplass and lucky Thakur! Anupam Kher as Baldev Singh ‘Dada Thakur’ does his villainy in a shortish part with decades of experience behind him.

One scene, wherein Sonia asks a banana-selling boy/dwarf of age 5-6 whether he has seen any policeman around, and his shocking responses, can be quite chilly for the unsuspecting filmgoer. If you can take that without blinking an eyelid or with half a blink, you are in for some seedy and eye-opening goings on that will stay with you for a while after the film is over. Of course, the A.R. Rahman composed, sung and mixed track at the end will help.

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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