Tabrez Noorani: Love Sonia - The outrage of human trafficking Print E-mail

 Volume 393, ISSUE 10169, P309-310, January 26, 2019


The outrage of human trafficking

By Aarathi Prasad
In 2000, a protocol on people trafficking supplementing the existing United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime was adopted. This amendment recognised that combatting human trafficking, particularly that of women and children, would need an international effort and universal instrument requiring the buy-in of countries that formed the origin, transit, and final destinations of those trafficked. By 2002, the document had accumulated 117 signatories, one of which was India. Despite this, many women and children still fall victim to sex trafficking in India. According to the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, in the past 5 years, India has remained a destination for child sex tourism and continues to be a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to both forced labour and sex trafficking. From traditional red-light districts to small hotels, in vehicles, huts, and private residences, religious pilgrimage centres, and tourist destinations, human traffickers are increasingly using websites, mobile applications, and online money transfers to facilitate commercial sex in these settings.

Reports and statistics like these are deeply disturbing, but like all hard, cold facts, they can engender a certain immunity to the human cost of such horrific crimes. It is the stories of victims and survivors of sex trafficking themselves that hold the power to speak the loudest, and to change the view of human trafficking from a crime that happens to others out there to one closer to our everyday lives, hidden within familiar neighbourhoods. Tabrez Noorani's film Love Sonia brings the disturbing stories of the trafficked­and their traffickers­alive through a lens that captures both beauty and brutality.

The film opens in the schoolyard of a peaceful but impoverished Maharashtra village with the laughter of Sonia (played by Mrunal Thakur), a bright and sensitive 17-year-old, and her sister Preeti (played by Riya Sisodiya), a little older, but evidently less able in academic and domestic life. As the film moves on, the pressures of their drought-gripped family farm and consequent mounting debts to the local landowner lead the girls' father to make a terrible decision. For a sum of money, he hands Preeti over to a woman who promises her a good job as a maid in the big city. Instead, the young girl is drugged and sold into sexual slavery in a cheap Mumbai brothel. In her attempt to locate her sister, Sonia is later tricked into going to the city, whereupon she is handcuffed, and like the other girls, beaten and caged when she refuses to have sex with clients. Ultimately, Sonia's virginity is sold to a bidder in Hong Kong; and after a forced hymenoplasty, a second journey by shipping container takes her to Los Angeles, where her trauma continues as she is sold again.
 (Copyright © 2019 Modern Films)

The performances of the cast are convincing: the terror and hurt of those portraying the victims made palpable and the cruelty or, even more frightening, the apathy of those complicit in the trafficking expertly captured. The narrative space given to the story as it unfolds in rural and urban India makes the film visually rich. But the trafficking of the women to markets in other countries felt rushed, and with less time to develop these stories of the non-Indian clients, traffickers, and saviours (including Demi Moore), the final part of the film seemed somewhat one dimensional. Yet it's clear that to Noorani, who previously worked on Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi, this honest, heart wrenching story was neither made for entertainment nor accolades. Although the film ends with its own bracing statistic­that 270 women and girls still go missing in India every day ­each of Love Sonia's frames is infused with lived experience through the memories and voices of sex trafficking survivors with whom Noorani had worked. During the 10 years in which the script was developed, Noorani saw undercover operations­raids on Mumbai brothels and the work of anti-trafficking organisations. In those seedy, condom and filth-strewn apartment blocks where women are made to have sex in cubicles reminiscent of battery farms and eyed lecherously as they nurse their babies in the corridors, the film's team and the anti-trafficking organisations with which they worked identified and rescued a number of trafficked girls and women. It was the stories of women like these that served as the inspiration for some of the characters and storylines of the film. One of them, Rashmi (played by Freida Pinto), had been made homeless when her husband remarried and her infant son was taken away from her. With neither income nor family, Rashmi fell into the hands of a pimp. Another character, Madhuri (played by Richa Chadha), became similarly estranged from her family after she was gang raped on a train when she was a teenager. Once in the brothel, the clients of both women refused to wear condoms­with Madhuri becoming infected with HIV as a result.

The trafficking and exploitation of women is a global issue; but the combination of the cycle of gender inequity, sex-selective abortions, consequent skewed gender ratios, and violence against women and girls has created a particular crucible for the commoditisation of the female body in the Indian subcontinent. In Love Sonia, neither Rashmi nor Madhuri left the brothel, although they were free to do so. In an interview, Freida Pinto described an interaction with such a young woman during her research for the film; the woman told Pinto, “We're happy where we are because we have kids to send to school. Why would we go back to weaving baskets for no money?” It is a sentiment reflective of the fact that although India is a hub for sex trafficking from, and to, a number of countries, part of the intractability of the country's situation stems from the reality that most of India's trafficking problem is internal and involves the trade of people from the most disadvantaged social strata­in which Dalits, members of tribal communities, religious minorities, and women and girls from excluded groups remain the most vulnerable.
 (Copyright © 2019 Modern Films)

Love Sonia portrays the complicity that Noorani observed of some of those who have been charged to protect the vulnerable. Although, overall, India has maintained efforts to prevent human trafficking and increased efforts to protect victims, its National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) 2016 Crime in India Report recorded a total of just 7570 people who were subjected to sex trafficking the previous year. Trafficking is hard to calculate accurately, but some Indian media outlets and non-governmental organisations commented that the figures reported by the NCRB did not reflect the true scale of human trafficking crimes in India. The reasons for this are complex, as the film implies. Cases of sex trafficking may not be registered by police or settled at the complaint stage. Inconsistent application of the law across jurisdictions, corruption among officials, and a lack of awareness or capacity in some parts of India contribute to inaction on trafficking crimes by police and prosecutors. There have also been allegations of corrupt law enforcement officers protecting suspected traffickers and brothel owners, receiving bribes from sex trafficking establishments or sexual services from victims, and tipping off sex traffickers about forthcoming raids. Despite these problems, no official reports of investigations into such cases of complicity were officially registered in India, according to the 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report.

As with any portrayal of harsh reality, such as Love Sonia sets out to recreate, there can be no entirely happy endings. Each of the trafficked women in the film takes a different journey­some will die from drugs, disease, or suicide; others are able to find hope and happiness in their lives; some still live in India and others live in the countries to which they were trafficked. In seeking to recount the stories, as well as the physical and mental trauma experienced by those who have lived, still live, or will live the reality of sex trafficking portrayed in Love Sonia, Noorani exposes the darkest face of humanity in the hope that the film makes the devastating and lucrative sex trafficking business ­and the victims it tries to keep hidden ­that much more visible.

Love Sonia A Tabrez Noorani film. Modern Films. On release in the UK and Ireland from Jan 25, 2019