Tamasha Talkies, Womark/Noorani Productions, Love Sonia Films, India Take One Productions, Samraaj Talkies and Zee Studios present “Love Sonia”
Produced by: David Womark & Tabrez Noorani
Directed by: Tabrez Noorani
Written by: Ted Caplan, Tabrez Noorani & Alkesh Vaja with Ritesh Shah (Hindi dialogues)
Music: Niels Bye Nielsen & A. R. Rahman
Starring: Richa Chadha, Mrunal Thakur, Manoj Bajpayee, Rajkummar Rao, Freida Pinto, Demi Moore, Mark Duplass, Riya Sisodiya, Anupam Kher, Adil Hussain, Kiran Khoje, Sai Tamhankar and others
Way back until maybe the early 1980s, there was this Satyajit Ray-inspired culture of India’s backwardness, poverty and evils that needed to be shown starkly to the world out of God-knows-what complexes. Though Ray was a master, his followers – most of the arty brigade – were far from that. They successfully perpetuated the concept that India was still a nation wherein elephants and roadside astrologers walked every worthy street.
Then a few years later, the new pseudo-brigade took over, led by Mira Nair in “Salaam Bombay.” Of course, such films got critical acclaim globally. And the films spewed forth – even within India, apart from movies like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Beyond The Clouds.” Slums, prostitution, drugs, crime, objectification of women, regressive attitudes and approaches – the formula and template were the same.
And why not? It paid rich dividends in the media, at festivals, obscure or otherwise, in the matter of awards and permanent global and quality branding for the purveyors, come Majid Majidi, Danny Boyle or, now, Tabrez Noorani. After all, whatever can be done to discourage tourism to an India unimagined by them is kosher, right? And come on, come on, we have slogged for years on research on realities in this god-forsaken country that, mysteriously, remains a growing economy when major countries are facing big trouble!! God-forsaken, did you say???
Yes, Indian audiences, that infinitely more sagacious majority that knows how to dump a “Raman Raghav 2.0” but take “Bahubali” to the skies, are not fooled. But so what? The Indian media’s support will remain, with impressionable GenY reporters and critics – who have not known how old, jaded and trite this template is – going ga-ga, rah-rah and wah-wah over the gritty treatment of a real problem they claim they were not aware of before. Sadly, we are aware, but not very effective in tackling it. And why that is remains another story, this brigade of filmmakers will not dare touch even marginally.
Like in so many films of the past, they will “present reality” and reach a cul-de-sac in their “story” – ‘un’finishing it with a series of statistics in slides that quickly move to the next!
And that’s what the treatment of “Love Sonia” is about. Shiva (Adil Hussein), a poor farmer in debt, has two daughters and no sons, so he makes them toil the soil, so to speak. The pretty and fair Priti is lazy, but the dark and unprepossessing Sonia is indispensable to him.
A digression here about the name ‘Sonia.’: Such a name can exist in rural India only if a family is a devotee of you-know-who!! But guess the filmmakers needed a globally-common first name. A “Love Kamini” would not have carried anywhere near the same weight, right?
The local landowner Baldev Singh (Anupam Kher) buys off Priti and through his trusted agent Anjali (Sai Tamhankar), sells her off to a brothel in Mumbai. A miserable Sonia insists on being taken to meet her sister, as she is supposed to be in a good setup in Mumbai, and Anjali takes her away too, unknown to the father, as per Sonia’s wishes.
We are then introduced to the ‘brothel-dom’ of Faizal (Manoj Bajpayee) and his main madam Madhuri (Richa Chadha) and whatever goes on there – the brutality, child prostitution, unwanted kids, drugs and disease, filth, police corruption, determined social workers (Rajkummar Rao) and the varied but terrible personal stories. Here is where Noorani’s admittedly painstaking research scores a notch above many such subjects. He even shows how this racket is organized to reach the Far East and finally as far as Los Angeles, where an encounter with an Indian girl in an illegal sex worker contingent inspired him. However, as a wise filmmaker in India said, “Ideas don’t make films, scripts do.” The script is like any other pseudo film that claims to be hard-hitting, focuses on a problem and then just pokes the balloon with an inconclusive end where statistics can substitute for resolution!
Lukasz Bielan’s camerawork impresses big time thanks to the perfect lighting and cutting of shots. Martin Singer’s editing, however, is somnambulistic. The three main legs of the film (script, direction, and editing) conspire to make the 126-minute film be so languorous that we can almost swear it is 180 plus! A big shoutout, however, to the masterful production design by Ravi Srivastava and Scott Enge (for L.A.). Srivastava’s work makes the Mumbai red-light area’s by-lanes look appropriately gaudy (especially after dark) and the brothel correctly dingy.
“Love Sonia” is boosted by a good turn by debutant Mrunal Thakur as Sonia. She is perfectly cast, but her performance stops at real and good, never getting into the extraordinary. That privilege is reserved for Richa Chadha, who effortlessly dwarfs all as the madam. Her character, as written, maybe 80, but she makes it score a 100.
Manoj Bajpayee skips his normal hamming and gets down to underplayed acting of a high level as Faizal. Adil Hussein makes a mark as the beleaguered, unscrupulous yet repentant father later. The boy who plays the sisters’ friend is quite good, as is Riya Sisodia as Priti.
Freida Pinto, Demi Moore, Mark Duplass, Anupam Kher and Rajkummar Rao are completely wasted, though Freida does impress in a few sequences, as does Sai Tamhankar despite another sketchy role. Kiran Khoje as the girls’ hapless, silent and suffering mother makes an impression despite almost no footage worth the name. Now, this is the mark of a true-blue actress who needs only her eyes and face to communicate volumes of unexpressed thoughts.