A shocking, uncomfortable story of sex trafficking, Love Sonia opened this weekend to mixed reviews and a sufficiently harrowed audience. It’s the story of an innocent, naïve teenage girl – Sonia – who gets ensnared in a terrifying, dingy world of sex-trafficking in Mumbai after her debt-ridden father is forced to sell her sister – Preeti – into the trade, from an indistinguishable, drought-prone desert “1400 kilometres away.” Sonia’s determination to find her sister is the spine of the film, which is a horrific against-all-odds journey that Mrunal Thakur plays with conviction. The film touches on several facets of sex trafficking – from the plight of farmer debt to the impoverished underbelly of big cities, from older prostitutes resigned to their fate to suicide, drugs and STDs, from corrupt cops to local NGOs and foreign saviours – but there’s one hidden element that tells a much deeper story.
While there is no shortage of disturbing scenes in the film, the most disconcerting thing left entirely on the fringes of the narrative is the role of the women who aid in trafficking other women. Anjali (Sai Tamhankur) who seems to be a one-dimensional, money-hungry middleman, lures in young girls from remote villages with the promise of pretty bangles and gifts. She serves the role of the superficially sympathetic, maternal figure without which the naiveté of her victims cannot be harnessed. There are a few moments in the film where men – like the highway motel owner – warn Sonia that she is a “poisonous woman,” almost a caricature-like nod to India’s long-standing tradition of the sly, bitchy female villain who is out to sabotage all other women. But the film is far from caricature and Anjali is neither femme fatale nor a complex and well-developed villain like her male counterparts. Instead, she is a fleeting – but crucial – cog in the global human trafficking system, a symbolic character mirrored by the women in Hong Kong and Los Angeles that “greet” Sonia and the others when they arrive after being internationally smuggled.
The lack of narrative detail in these female traffickers might almost be intentional, seeing as they are distinctly kept in the shadows and it is an issue that goes far beyond the scope of the film. Very little research has been conducted on the nature of traffickers, since most efforts are, perhaps rightly, focused on victim rescue and rehabilitation. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recently undertook such a study, which found that “in 30% of the countries which provided information on the gender of traffickers, women made up the largest proportion of traffickers. In some parts of the world, women trafficking women is the norm.”
It’s a deeply disheartening fact: women trafficking other women is a growing problem and where no number of theory-laden women’s solidarity movements can address that, Love Sonia gives us glimpses. Madhuri (Richa Chadha) and Rashmi (Freida Pinto) share with Anjali the kind of crude, hardened apathy that masks a vulnerable heart. Together they paint a picture of how women who have been victims of trafficking can become traffickers themselves, as often abuse begets abuse no matter where in the world it is. One Albanian woman told The Guardian how she could only escape trafficking herself if she brought back new victims. “I had to go to my town and tell the girls there that I knew from school that there were great opportunities in the UK for them, you know, as waitresses and even as dancers. They were poor and desperate like me, so they wanted to get away. I felt like I had stuck a knife in my own stomach, knowing what I was taking them to, but I could not stand one more day [in the brothel],” she said.
What Love Sonia does so covertly and poignantly is capture the complexity of the relationships between women in this film, not out of any fallacy about universal sisterhood but rather borne from a shared sense of hopelessness. For Sonia, finding her sister is her sole purpose and her guiding light, but for the unexplored peripheral characters, there is no such respite.
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