Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia is a well-meaning and sincere, if uneven and unsubtle, attempt to dramatise the horrors of sex trafficking. Noorani and co-writer Ted Caplan map the journey of an adolescent from a dust-laden village in India to high-rises and villas in Los Angeles. Some Indians would give a leg and an arm to make this journey. Sonia (Mrunal Thakur) is forced to put her body on the line, and some of her soul too.

Sonia’s backstory is familiar, both in real life and in movies about the causes of prostitution. Sonia and her sister Preeti (Riya Sisodiya) are the daughters of loan-burdened farmer Shiva (Adil Hussain). The debtors have begun circling Shiva’s unyielding farming patch. He sells Preeti to a pair of local procurers (Sai Tamhankar and Anupam Kher), who ensure that a brothel in Mumbai that is run by Babu (Manoj Bajpayee) is well-stocked.

A desperate Sonia offers herself up for sale too. In Babu’s brothel, she meets many women with similar stories, but Preeti isn’t among them. Sonia’s investigation into Preeti’s whereabouts comes at a terrible personal price, but along the way she finds out who her allies are and comes closer to discovering the truth about her sister.

However, Preeti disappears from the narrative after Sonia gets further sold to a global trafficking operation. The dehumanisation of women like Sonia is aptly conveyed in the manner in which they are transported – they are packed into shipping container like bales of cloth, and taken first to Hong Kong and then to Los Angeles.

The handling of the brothel scenes has its share of horrors, with Sonia’s training resembling the manner in which wild animals are broken in, through a combination of threats and inducements. The brothel also has the strongest characters and performances – Manoj Bajpayee as the sinister pimp, Richa Chadha as a brassy but large-hearted prostitute who becomes Sonia’s saviour, Rajkummar Rao as a social worker, and Freida Pinto as the resident eccentric who keeps a cat and displays feline behaviour herself. Mrunal Thakur gamely plays along as Love Sonia piles on the misery, wringing out the tears and summoning up courage on tap.

Rajkummar Rao and Richa Chadha in Love Sonia. Courtesy Tamasha Talkies/Samraaj Talkies.

Love Sonia loses its footing when it leaves India for the capital of Hollywood, which is no stranger to contrivances and star cameos (Hollywood actors Mark Duplass and Demi Moore do the honours in this movie). After wandering into fairy-tale territory, the 126-minute film rediscovers its grittiness when it returns home to assess what its heroine has gained and lost.

It’s a slickly shot and produced affair (Noorani’s experience as a line producer comes handy here), with every attempt made to deliver a story that is gritty as well as good-looking. The sunlight that floods Sonia’s village is in stark contrast to the dingy brothel, where it is hard to tell night from day. Despite the disjointed narrative, which leaps from one idea to another, the unconvincing plot turns, and the unending agony that awaits Sonia at every turn, the movie doesn’t waver from its focus on the inherently exploitative nature of sex work.

Love Sonia (2018).