Love Sonia, directed by Tabrez Noorani and produced by David Womark, has its world premiere at the Bagri London Indian Film Festival 2018 on June 21. It was the opening film of the festival and received a standing ovation. The film, starring Mrunal Thakur, Richa Chadha, Manoj Bajpayee, Freida Pinto, Rajkummar Rao, Adil Hussain, Anupam Kher, Sai Tamhankar and Riya Sisodiya, among others, tells the story of Sonia (Mrunal Thakur), a young girl from a village, whose life irrevocably changes when she is entrapped into the vicious global sex trade network.
Excerpts from a conversation with the director follow:
What made you choose a subject like human trafficking? How did you go about researching this subject?
About 14 years ago, I stumbled upon a girl who had been trafficked from the East. She had been trafficked through two countries and ended up in a container in Los Angeles. This opened my eyes and drew me into the world of global sex trafficking. It was very important for me and my producer to make an authentic film, so a lot of research went into it.
At first, I spoke to a few girls for research and to find out more about what happens and how it happens. Slowly I got more involved and started working with NGOs and started going undercover to identify underage girls in brothels. I mostly did this while I was shooting other films as that was a good cover. From these real life girls, women and boys that we met, came the screenplay for Love Sonia.
How did you put your ensemble cast together?
After finding our Sonia, which was not easy and we probably went through about 2500 girls before we found Mrunal, we had a very short window to make the film. Fortunately, everyone we reached out to responded positively to the script and pretty much came on board because of the script, subject matter and due to the people involved. It was a dream having Manoj, Richa, Adil, Anupam, Sai, Freida all together. Mrunal and Riya Sisodya were amazing finds as well.
You got a standing ovation at the London Indian film festival. Did you expect it? Can you elaborate on what happened there after the film was screened and reactions you got?
We had no idea what to expect, and obviously, we were completely thrilled at the reaction to the film. It was the first time that more than 50 people were watching the film at a public screening and we were very pleased and humbled at the reaction. It was amazing to be able to speak to audience members, a lot of whom were shell-shocked and still reeling after the film. I know a few people found it hard to watch and had to leave the theatre as well.
What was the toughest part about making this film?
We had a few challenges on this one starting with a very small budget for a film that was shot in three countries and with a large cast. I needed the film to be very authentic and that meant shooting on a lot of real locations, which is also extremely challenging. But the most difficult part was finding a balance and trying not to cross that line, especially with a young actress in terms of what we were shooting and how we were shooting it.
We wanted it to be real and hard-hitting, which meant not holding back any punches, but at the same time had to make sure to not exploit anyone. I was lucky to have Mrunal who trusted us, understood what we were doing, and gave it everything.
Rajkumar Rao was not a big star when he signed the film. Today he has become one. Have you noticed any changes in him?
Raj was amazing, he signed on after meeting with us and reading the script. And no, I haven’t seen any change in him at all. We got to know each other while shooting the film and became good friends. He has been enormously supportive, and even for what is technically a very small role, he did an enormous amount of research and gave it his all. I was extremely impressed with him from day one.
Was it tough shooting with such a large ensemble cast?
It wasn’t as tough as I thought it was going to be in terms of having the entire cast together and shooting big scenes. I like to be very flexible as a director and I enjoy having a conversation with my actors and getting them to contribute, which is exactly what we did on this and everything came together well. A lot of people warned me before, about having all these actors egos getting in the way while I was directing, but I have to say that never happened.