'Love Sonia': Film Review

Courtesy of Tamasha Talkies
'Love Sonia'
A worthy but lifeless passion project.

'Slumdog Millionaire' producer Tabrez Noorani makes his directing debut with this Indian sex-trafficking drama.

Around 270 women and girls go missing in India every day. While prostitution is technically legal, it inevitably co-exists alongside a massive underground trade in sex trafficking. According to recent United Nations estimates, more than 650,000 prostitutes live in the subcontinent, but almost twice as many illegal underage sex workers. These grim statistics form the dramatic backdrop to Love Sonia, the feature directing debut of Tabrez Noorani, who previously worked as a line producer on prestige international projects including Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty.

Love Sonia is handsomely shot and competently acted by a mostly Indian cast, which includes fellow Slumdog Millionaire veteran Freida Pinto. Brief cameos by Demi Moore and Mark Duplass provide extra novelty appeal. Noorani's motives are clearly noble, and he has been involved with anti-trafficking charities for several years. But sadly, good intentions do not make for great drama. This preachy, by-the-numbers issue movie may conceivably have value as an educational aid for vulnerable young women in India, but for a wider global audience it offers little not already seen in countless previous films on the sex trade. Commercial prospects will be thin when it opens in U.K. theaters this weekend,

The contemporary plot tracks the traumatic journey of Sonia (Mrunal Thakur), an innocent teenage village girl from a poor farming family in northern India. Pressured by family debts, a domineering father and a wicked local land baron, Sonia is tricked and coerced into sex work while searching for her beloved sister Preeti (Riya Sisodiya) in Mumbai. After months of being ground down, brutalized and exploited by her odious pimp, Faizal (Manoj Bajpayee), Sonia is packed into a freight container and shipped across the world to service clients in Hong Kong and Los Angeles. But during a sex party for Hollywood high-rollers, she finally spots a chance to break free and seize back control of her life, with support from anti-trafficking charities.

Rooted in real events, Love Sonia could have been a gripping thriller with a timely edge of feminist critique. Even a faint flicker of Lisbeth Salander's vengeful fury would have been very welcome here. But Noorani renders Sonia's nightmarish fate oddly mundane with his sluggish direction, flat characterization and coy approach to sexual matters. Thakur has a magnetic face and does her best with thin material, but the screenplay mostly requires her to radiate angelic innocence throughout her ordeal, a one-note approach that ultimately feels stilted and false.

Demi Moore's presence is yet another curious footnote to her faded blockbuster career, but her former superstar wattage barely flickers during her cursory couple of scenes. Admittedly, there are pleasing shades of psychological complexity in the Pinto character, a high-ranking prostitute trapped in a love-hate relationship with Faizal, and in the Duplass character, whose outward aura of nice-guy Hollywood liberalism co-exists with knowing complicity in sexual exploitation.

These secondary characters have an intriguing, morally ambivalent quality that a more sophisticated film might have explored for extra dramatic bite. Alas, Noorani consistently falls back in heavy-handed stereotypes and obvious emotional cues. The cloying score, by Niels Bye Nielsen and Oscar-winning Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman, only reinforces the thudding literalism that makes Love Sonia such a passionless passion project.

Production companies: Tamasha Talkies, Womark/Noorani Productions, Love Sonia Films, India Take One Productions, Samraaj Talkies
Cast: Mrunal Thakur, Riya Sisodiya, Freida Pinto, Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadha, Anupan Kher, Adil Hussain, Rajkummar Rao, Mark Duplass, Demi Moore
Director: Tabrez Noorani
Screenwriters: Ted Caplan, Alkesh Vaja
Producers: David Womark, Tabrez Noorani
Cinematographer: Lucas Bielan
Editor: Martin Singer
Music: Niels Bye Nielsen, A.R. Rahman
122 minutes