Director: Tabrez Noorani
Cast: Mrunal Thakur, Freida Pinto, Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadha
The good creeps up on the bad in Love Sonia. A receptionist sizes up a young girl at a hotel desk; later, he lends her some money and warns her to run away. A bearded man at a brothel picks from an assortment of underage sex slaves; later, he turns out to be an undercover NGO-worker. Towards the end, a high-paying American client, after availing the services of a trafficked Indian girl, casually gifts her a life-saving cell phone, making no big deal of it.
Humanity lurks in strange, seedy corners in Tabrez Noorani's directorial debut. What could have easily slipped into the trenches of reductive cinema is rescued by a dogged upscaling of drama. The characters in Love Sonia may seem lifted from newspaper leads (a drought-stricken Marathwada farmer, an exploitative local Thakur, an STD-afflicted sex worker), but their interactions reveal as much about their inner lives as they do about their social standings. One moment, you are hating on Manoj Bajpayee for playing a fiendish sex trader named Faizal; in the next, he delights you with a flurry of Hindi slangs deployed at a foreign buyer.
These dimensions extend to the film's protagonist, a naive and wishful village girl named Sonia (Mrunal Thakur). On the trail of her estranged sister, Sonia must make choices that jeopardise her own safety. Navigating through a minefield of lesser evils, she must settle for the rawest deal (Twice, she lets go of a chance at freedom in pursuit of her goal). Sonia is sold off, brutalised, raped, sedated and exported from Mumbai to Hong Kong to Los Angeles, all along by people who lure her in and spit her out. Makeshift relationships are born of everyday bargainings: Frieda Pinto, playing a starlet prostitute, and Richa Chadha, as the brothel madam, become Sonia's 'best friends', but thin out when the time comes. Life is presented as a constant platter of give-and-takes, and to survive one must transact.
There's repulsion to be expected from a film on human trafficking, but it isn't always visual. The horror arrives unexpectedly and (often) couched in dailogue: child actor Sunny Pawar (Lion, Sacred Games) gets a scene as a creepy fruit-seller chasing Sonia down a crowded Mumbai street; Director-actor Mark Duplass cameos as the above-mentioned American client, extending his perverse aura from Goliath Season 2. There are other characters -- played by Demi Moore, Rajkummar Rao and Abhishek Bharate -- who resemble the niceness of the world, but the overall feeling is never really of hope. In Love Sonia, the good, somehow, never stifles the bad.