World's oldest profession, exploitation

By Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

What brings Demi Moore, Frieda Printo, Rajkummar Rao, Manoj Bajpayee into the same film?

A still from Tabrez Noorani's film, Love Sonia

How does one explain Mumbai being perhaps the safest city for women in India (relatively speaking, of course)? That it has better people? I'm tempted to agree. But that's still a subjective, moot point. I guess one way to sense what makes this sprawling metropolis slightly harmless is that it is still small in geographical size, housing millions, who never sleep, because they simply don't have space to. As a result, no corner is ever bereft of whistleblowers — making crimes against women (or men, for that matter), a tougher act to pull off, without being noticed by many, at any given time of day (or night).

This is perhaps the same reason a lot of crimes, in the indoors, can take place with much ease, given that people are packed into noisy drawers, over drawers. Each of which, if you look closely enough, reveal several skeletons in some crevice or the other of the city's multi-storeyed cupboards. This is how Mumbai's fat underbelly effectively spreads out, when it comes to prostitution, in particular. The cabbie or auto-rickshaw guy operates as a resourceful pimp of the night, guiding customers toward random rooms, in busy by-lanes, and tall skyscrapers, neatly ensconced between regular homes in posh neighbourhoods, that open up to reveal full-on brothels, promising momentary love for the price of instant sex.

I'm not even sure if any of this is illegal, given, I guess, that prostitution in India isn't; soliciting is. Intuitively, it goes without saying that exploitation has been intrinsic to prostitution, ever since it's remained humanity's oldest profession. Either way, this urban-insider, Mumbai underworld isn't what Tabrez Noorani's film Love Sonia (that opens in theatres this Friday) surveys though. The film dives straight into the harsh interiors of the city's red-light district (like Kamathipura, in South Bombay), which is where the eponymous protagonist (Mrunal Thakur), a minor, finds herself in — having showed up in Mumbai from her village, hoping to find her sister, who had been sold off by her desperately poor father (Adil Hussain), who finds his two girls to be a curse, since a boy could've helped him better with his work on farm land instead. Does the film sort of remind you of Nagesh Kukunoor's thoroughly under-rated Lakshmi (2014); in the sense that it looks at rural poverty, child prostitution, and the organised, local sex-trade racket, yes.

But Love Sonia really attempts to peek into the goings-on in a Maharashtra village, with its obvious cascading effect on Mumbai, but thereafter, Hong Kong, and all the way to Los Angeles — shining a light on a sickening chain of terror that would be hard to fathom, if the world wasn't as globally interconnected; for better, or as in this case, definitely worse. The size of the global flesh flea-market, $150 billion a year, that Noorani cites from a research in a BBC interview, are indeed staggering enough to assume it exists far more in every nook than meets the eye. I'm told the film is somewhat based on a real-life incident around a minor Sri Lankan girl, who showed up in LA on a cargo ship container traversing continents, only united in their frightening perversion.

Noorani further backed his stories up over years of research through NGOs, visiting actual locations, that I presume, he would've intended to film as a documentary — obviously far, far grimmer than Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman's fantastic, Oscar wining Born Into Brothels (2004), set among children of sex-workers in Sonagachi (Kolkata's red-light district). And therefore if you switch on a deeply linear Love Sonia, with no prior knowledge of the film, you would be mildly surprised to find the A-listers hanging on your screen. Frieda Pinto plays one of Mumbai's sex-workers. Manoj Bajpayee runs the brothel. Richa Chadda helps manage it. Rajkummar Rao is the Good Samaritan. Demi Moore runs an American NGO. Mark Duplass is a perv customer. Anupam Kher walks in for an equally bit role as a wily moneylender...

What explains this stunning constellation? The Mumbai-born, LA-based, debutant director Noorani, by the way. He's been pretty much a one-stop shop for anyone, from Hollywood, who's shot anything in India, for a western (or global) audience, over the past many years. His CV, in the production department, includes Alexander, Slumdog Millionaire, Eat Pray Love, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Life Of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty, The Hundred-Foot Journey, The Second Best Marigold Hotel, Lion, A Viceroy House, etc.

Love Sonia does bear a touch of what should, post Slumdog Millionaire, be described as a Mumbai/Indian film with a distinctly foreign gaze/feel. Think, for a fluid sub-genre, Garth Davis' Lion (2016), or Majid Majidi's Beyond The Clouds (2017), or even more recently, expatriate director Kanwal Sethi's Once Again (that dropped on Netflix last week). This isn't to individually compare any of these films to Love Sonia, or each other (obviously not). The fact of a strikingly urgent subject, supported by a stellar cast, only too happy to see an important message through, firmly places Noorani's debut within the empathy-entertainment industry that, for its intent alone, would be unfair to ignore; let alone hate on. Just don't expect it to be an amusement park, that's all.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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