Having been in Birmingham nearly a year, I feel I can call myself an ‘honorary Brummie’ and was beyond excited when I was asked to attend the launch of the fourth Birmingham Indian Film Festival (BIFF). The largest film festival of its kind in the UK and Europe, BIFF showcases independent cinema over 10 days from the subcontinent.
The launch of the Birmingham Film Festival on Friday 22 June and started with a pre-drinks reception at Varanasi restaurant on Broad Street, before the glitz and glamour of meeting the stars of Love Sonia on the red carpet outside Cineworld Broad Street, being interviewed by press ahead of the film’s debut in the city.
Love Sonia, directed by Tabrez Noorani is a story of a young girl, who tries to save her sister, gets caught up in the web that is human trafficking. Noorani was exposed to this in LA when a friend of his asked for his help to rescue a South Asian woman who had been trafficked from India, inspiring the 10-year journey to make Love Sonia.
A subject not often tackled in Indian cinema, the film is harrowing, to say the least. It certainly stayed with me a few days after watching it and some scenes were incredibly disturbing. One of them had nothing to do with Sonia, played by the incredible Mrunal Thakur, it was the scene in which her father, played by Adil Hussain, sells his youngest daughter Preeti to help with his debt.
The desperation someone must feel to sell their own kin is beyond me, as a complete and utter daddy’s girl, this scene was disturbing on so many levels. From her being sold and not realising it, to Sonia getting caught after she followed her father to Dada Thakurs, played by evergreen talent that is Anupam Kher, with just a hint of subtle threat to make him a character to be wary of, to plead with her father not to send her sister away and to send her too.
The film follows Sonia’s journey to find her sister after she’s been sold and ultimately being thrust into the world of sex trafficking herself.
On the pretense of taking her to see her sister in Mumbai, Anjali played by Sai Thamkankur, the go between the pimps, Sonia meets Faizal, played by multi-talented Manoj Bajpayee. He’s introduced to us disciplining a man who has beaten a woman, to show that he is on the side of the women he looks after.
Through his power and manipulation, he keeps Sonia in check and any customers coming to see her are aware to keep her virginity intact. He’s trying to sell her off to a buyer in Hong Kong.
We see the extent of the operation through her being shipped off into a container to Hong Kong, this is the first scene where her rape is through penetrative sex and she loses her virginity, to have it sewn up for the next one in LA.
It’s here she’s dressed up and made to look exotic in a beautiful saree, having her hair done and arrives at a clearly wealthy American’s house, who acts the humble host. Played by Mark Duplass, as an audience member you have an odd sense of who he is. He’s clearly wealthy and we know he’s going to rape Sonia, he paid for the privilege but it’s almost in a quiet shyness that he treats her, even offering her a phone at the end.
The whole film is powerful, not just in the amazing performances by the women but the subtle details in the state of the brothel, the shot towards condoms and other rubbish on the floor, to the port authority guard at LA allowing the container through as he’s been paid to do so.
The extent of human trafficking is beyond imagination and this is the first film on this subject that tackles it so that I’ve seen.
But, the biggest issue I had and a thought that was echoed by Richa Chada during the Q&A is that yes, the pimps, the men controlling the women are an issue but it’s the people paying for the women in the first place that are the root cause.
What makes the human psyche want to do this? The scene with Mark in his lush LA home, I felt answered this for me. It’s those with the power and with wealth who want this. Why would Mark’s character have to pay for an Indian girl who has been trafficked? It could be the idea of an ‘exotic’ woman to have sex with but deep down it seems more than that.
It’s the fact that he can.
I want to do a special mention to Freida Pinto and Demi Moore who feature in this film, as Tabrez Noorani and producer David Womark, mentioned they bring an international appeal and their performances do stand out. Especially Freida as the slightly disturbed sex worker trying to befriend Sonia but wanting to put her in her place, respectively.
And Rajkumar Rao, who is an NGO worker going undercover to find save as many minors from these situations as possible, a character, based on Noorani who himself rescued multiple minors from the forced sex trade.
The Q&A with the badass women, Mrunal, whose performance alone is enough to watch this movie, Richa Chadha playing Madhuri, Rai Tamhankar, who played Anjali and Riya Sisodiya as Preeti, Sonia’s sister was thought-provoking and fun.
Human trafficking is a real issue, this film tackles it in a heart-wrenchingly real way. It’s a film that stayed with Mrunal after, admitting in the Q&A that she despised being touch after the filming by a man, the impact of playing Sonia was that powerful.
It certainly stays with you and makes you think about why anyone would do this, from the father selling his daughter, to the other men using girls, women and even boys as commodities to make money.
The rest of the festival films and schedule can be found at the official Birmingham Indian Film Festival website. http://birminghamindianfilmfestival.co.uk/