Movie Love Sonia tells the ugly truth of human trafficking

Love Sonia is not an entertainment movie but to make people aware of the complexity of human trafficking in India, writes ARCHITA KASHYAP

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The issue of human trafficking or sex slavery is often swept under the carpet, as it makes people uncomfortable most of the times. Culturally, India is projected as a land where family, customs and traditions  are of paramount importance. Cows are worshipped; female goddesses have festivals dedicated to them; women, at least mothers and wives are kept under veils and protected fiercely by men. Over time on ground, these traditions have become tools to coerce, exploit and abuse women and girls for economic benefit, within a veil of hypocrisy that is socially acceptable. Locating centralized data collated by the central government or a government agency is difficult; however a few statistics provide a clear enough picture. According to a study by Sahastra Seema Bal, trafficking of women and girls in the Indo-Nepal border has gone up by 500 percent between 2013 to 2017. Girls are sold to brothels in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. The price of a girl could range from 50,000 INR to a sum as measly as 10,000 INR. Prevention efforts are minimal and demand for young girls forced into sex trade is growing steadily. In 2018, crackdowns across Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, among other states, have thrown up shocking details of systemic abuse and trafficking of girls that have powerful people with local administration working hand in glove. Changing India’s record of women and child trafficking has become imperative to its development story; hence both central and state governments are working towards correcting this. With a vast, organized network of locals involved in trafficking, rooting it out from India is a hugely challenging task.

As has been Hindi cinema’s record in the past, the ugly truth behind human trafficking has simply been swept under the carpet. It’s not a good, entertaining film story- not the kinds that will get family audiences to flock to and buy popcorn. However, some filmmakers have gone beyond the gloss and begun addressing this nationwide menace. In fact, their films have begun to make people aware of the sheer size and complexity of human trafficking in India. Love Sonia is literally a labor of love for Tabrez Noorani. One of the producers of Slumdog Millionaire, Noorani has combined his Hollywood know how with an inherent Indian story about two sisters. One gets trafficked by a helpless father while the other, Sonia, seeks her out. This leads her to get sucked into an ugly, frightening world of trafficking-one which makes it’s victims cross borders in sea cargo containers and peddle their youth across different cities. With a very impressive cast that includes Anupam Kher, Rajkummar Rao, Manoj Bajpai, Frieda Pinto, Richa Chaddha and Hollywood stars Mark Duplass and Demi Moore, Love Sonia features TV star Mrunal Thakur in the title role. Her performance and the film has been applauded at it’s first outing at a Melbourne based Indian diaspora film festival. Thakur admits to have found this role so tough that she would have nervous breakdowns while filming. Noorani has spent nearly ten years researching for Love Sonia, in the process, collaborating with NGOs to rescue victims in Mumbai and other Indian towns. Bajpai states that this is one of his toughest roles ever, and that this film will become an eye opener in the Indian human trafficking narrative. Love Sonia is produced by David Womark, experienced in making Hollywood films and nominated for an Oscar for life of Pi. Womark brings scale and reach to Western film markets for government or a government agency is difficult; however a few statistics provide a clear enough picture. According to a study by Sahastra Seema Bal, trafficking of women and girls in the Indo-Nepal border has gone up by 500 percent between 2013 to 2017. Girls are sold to brothels in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. The price of a girl could range from 50,000 INR to a sum as measly as 10,000 INR. Prevention efforts are minimal and demand for young girls forced into sex trade is growing steadily.

In 2018, crackdowns across Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, among other states, have thrownup shocking details of systemic abuse and trafficking of girls that have powerful people with local administration working hand in glove. Changing India’s record of women and child trafficking has become imperative to its development story; hence both central and state governments are working towards correcting this. With a vast, organized network of locals involved in trafficking, rooting it out from India is a hugely challenging task. As has been Hindi cinema’s record in the past, the ugly truth behind human trafficking has simply been swept under the carpet. It’s not a good, entertaining film story- not the kinds that will get family audiences to flock to and buy popcorn. However, some filmmakers have gone beyond the gloss and begun addressing this nationwide menace. In fact, their films have begun to make people aware of the sheer size and complexity of human trafficking in India.

Love Sonia is literally a labor of love for Tabrez Noorani. One of the producers of Slumdog Millionaire, Noorani has combined his Hollywood know how with an inherent Indian story about two sisters. One gets trafficked by a helpless father while the other, Sonia, seeks her out. This leads her to get sucked into an ugly, frightening world of trafficking-one which makes it’s victims cross borders in sea cargo containers and peddle their youth across different cities. With a very impressive cast that includes Anupam Kher, Rajkummar Rao, Manoj Bajpai, Frieda Pinto, Richa Chaddha and Hollywood stars Mark Duplass and Demi Moore, Love Sonia features TV star Mrunal Thakur in the title role. Her performance and the film has been applauded at it’s first outing at a Melbourne based Indian diaspora film festival. Thakur admits to have found this role so tough tha she would have nervous breakdowns while filming. Noorani has spent nearly ten years researching for Love Sonia, in the process, collaborating with NGOs to rescue victims in Mumbai and other Indian towns. Bajpai states that this is one of his toughest roles ever, and that this film will become an eye opener in the Indian human trafficking narrative. Love Sonia is produced by David Womark, experienced in making Hollywood films and nominated for an Oscar for life of Pi. Womark brings scale and reach to Western film markets for this Indie film, thereby ensuring that it reaches critics and audiences globally.

International cinema, by well meaning film professionals and celebrities, has told stories of human trafficking with regularity. Sold (2016), is a poignant and beautiful story about a young Nepalese girl sold into trafficking and the travails of rescuing her. Emma Thompson was executive producer of this story written and directed by Jeffrey D Brown. It stars David Arquette and Seema Biswas, along with Assamese teenager Niyar Saikia as the victim. Despite winning awards and recognition at international film festivals, Sold is yet to release in theatre anywhere. Films with hard-hitting subjects that don’t dilute their message often remain limited to festival audiences, which limit their ability to find Kukunoor, has not prevented the film’s print from being up on YouTube; at least that ensures that the film is being seen here. A documentary Oass — The Dew Drop, also travelled to Cannes seeking buyers. It dealt with the common criminal practice of trafficking of women and children in Nepal through the eyes of a real victim.

In Hindi cinema, Mardaani, the 2014 Rani Mukerji starrer, dealt with the trade of young girls kidnapped and sold into prostitution. While made for commercial viewing, Mardaani had its hard hitting moments; especially in carving out an antagonist (in a stellar debut by Tahir Raj Bhasin) who considered selling, buying girls just everyday business. The film also looks at the nexus of politicians, businessmen and rich men that seek out sex with underage girls routinely. For a Yash Raj film, this is a brave and well-done attempt to highlight the realities of trafficking. In mainstream Hindi cinema, the only other recent film to touch upon systematic human trafficking is Awarapan, made in 2007. Starring Emraan Hashmi and Shriya Saran, the film flopped but it had presented a sensitive portrayal of hapless young girls forced into sex slavery and prostitution and the complete lack of rehabilitation efforts for them. In terms of a subject, human trafficking provides multiple opportunities to tell relevant stories from India. Compulsions of poverty, bias against the girl child, feudal power structures and paid sexual abuse- are relevant social malaises that form layers of India’s trafficking story. The onus on supporting and promoting films that address any aspect of this sordid tale is on the government and it’s cultural bodies. Instead of snipping off this content with a puritan attitude, letting it breathe in movie theatres will go a long way in building awareness against this form of injustice. It’s time that trafficking takes center stage on film; and the government supports such projects.

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