Despite stellar cast, compelling story, ‘Love Sonia’ opens to mixed responses

Hollywood actors Mrunal Thakur and Richa Chaddha and Hollywood import Freida Pinto star in “Love Sonia,” about Indian girls being sex trafficked. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ producer Tabrez Noorani’s debut directorial venture, ‘Love Sonia’ is inspired by real events.

The Hindi film tells the story of Sonia (Thakur), who risks her life to rescue her sister from a vicious human trafficking network across India, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. Pinto plays the role of Rashmi, who works as a sex slave in Mumbai, while Chaddha is seen as Madhuri, a brothel owner.

The film stars Riya Sisodiya, Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher, Adil Hussain, Rajkummar Rao and Sai Tamhankar as well; and features Demi Moore in a cameo. The film released worldwide on Jan. 25.

Pinto told BBC that she first read the script sometime in 2007-2008, right after “Slumdog Millionaire.” Pinto Told Vanity Fair UK that “it has taken 10 years to get it to the screen because it wasn't the easiest film to finance. In India it was thought to be too dark.”

The story revolves around Preeti and Sonia, teenage girls from a remote village, who get caught up in India's burgeoning sex trade. After the repeated failure of his crops, their desperate father sells Preeti to a local landlord, who ships her off to Mumbai.

Sonia follows, hoping to rescue her sister, but is herself kidnapped and forced into a backstreet brothel. Pinto plays Rashmi, a hardened prostitute who introduces the teenager to the reality of her new life. Pinto told Vanity Fair that she was “both disturbed by what she read and immediately drawn to the character of Rashmi, a 30-something sex worker, with a schizophrenic-like demeanor, damaged from years of abuse.”

She said she “came alive” when she read her character Rashmi’s part. "It makes you wonder, in a progressive society like America or in the UK [where human trafficking is said to be worth more than £100 million ($190m) a year], what is the government really doing about this problem?" says Pinto. "There will only be a supply if there is a demand. We have to talk about the issues driving this."

For lead actress Thakur, the role in her debut film was tough, to say the least. She told NDTV that she almost backed out. To research the experiences of women and girls sold into the sex trade, like the title character she plays in the film Love Sonia, Mrunal Thakur met survivors in red light districts in Mumbai and Kolkata. “There were a couple of scenes which were really difficult... There was a point where I told Tabrez I can't do it,"she said. But it was the hope that she could be voice for the countless voiceless girls that kept her going, Thakur told NDTV.

Meanwhile, Chaddha too has second thoughts. She told the Deccan Chronicle that she was hesitant to the do the role when offered it ‘because she was worried if the story would do justice to the portrayal of something so sensitive.” She also revealed that when she started shooting for the film she met many sex workers, a lot of young girls who were rescued from the flesh trade and listened to incidents that one could never fathom were even possible.”

After 2.5 months of shooting in different locations, depicting brutality and real stories on screen, once done with filming, Richa headed to for therapy sessions with a psychologist to help her detach from the role,” the Deccan Chronicle report said.

Referring to the mixed response the film has been receiving, Chaddha told the Indian Express that it could be because of the difficult subject. "If a girl is abducted and even if she is found later chances are the family may not accept her back because it would bring her bad name in the village and in the community," she said. "It's a very uncomfortable truth for anybody in India to accept, but this is the truth."

According to a Reuters report, the film tanked it India, “despite a star cast, strong reviews and awards.” Noorani told Reuters that “India was not ready for a movie like this. However, he said that while a “movie like this would never normally get a big release in India - but it opened in 350 screens due to the star-studded cast.”

A Times of India review said that “while the film works well on an awareness level and has a certain shock value, it isn’t emotionally compelling. The bond between the sisters isn’t established enough for you to feel for their separation.”

The Guardian, in its review says that although “Noorani impressively conveys the sense of living hell, the framing device of Sonia’s epic search for her sister, and a fluffy love story, let down his authentic-styled drama.” The review concluded that: one may “walk out of the cinema sad and angry for the real Sonias, but strangely enough unmoved by the character, in spite of Thakur’s first-class performance.”

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