For a section of the audience whose perception of "Bollywood" is not devoid of song and dance sequences, Tabrez Noorani's carefully cast "Love Sonia" turned out to be as hard-hitting as its subject -- sex trafficking -- at the movie's Australian premiere here on Friday night.
"Love Sonia" was the opening film of the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne (IFFM).
Moving, disturbing, haunting and heart-wrenching are the words audience used to describe the movie, which is about exploitation of young women in global sex trafficking.
IFFM Festival Director Mitu Bhowmick Lange said it was a conscious decision to have this as the opener as "cinema should also make people uncomfortable".
Filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani, who was present among the audience, said that perhaps it was the "most disturbing" film he had ever seen in his life -- "in a good way".
"It requires tremendous courage and empathy to do this. So, a big salute to the entire team. I think the job of a filmmaker is to communicate, to reach out, and the way the entire team has done this job... I think it's now our job, or whoever is watching this film, to do something about it and to make it into a movement and make a little bit of a difference."
A film which Noorani had been planning for at least a decade, "Love Sonia" enters the dark alleys where sex trafficking is a business and sexual exploitation and oppression a way of life. The reality, as the team put it, is "darker".
Mrunal Thakur, known to Indian television audiences as Bulbul of "Kumkum Bhagya", delivers a performance that elicited a comparison with the late Smita Patil.
"This girl... She's the next one," pointed out actress Freida Pinto, who has a key role in the film and hopes it raises global conversation about the issue.
In her pursuit to play Sonia, who gets out to rescue her sister from the menace and gets caught into it herself, Mrunal visited Sonagachi -- India's largest red-light district, located in West Bengal -- and was upset to know how there were women with 30 to 40 clients a day.
Actress Richa Chadha, in the role of a brothel owner and a trafficked rape victim, leaves a mark and makes a point.
"This is a modern-day form of slavery. We need to understand why this sickness and perversity exists," said Richa, stressing the dire need to empower men who are the clients.
Noorani said: "You can fight sex trafficking in various different ways -- education, lowering the poverty level, NGOs... But the biggest problem is there are never any prosecutions for the end-user and for the ones who are paying for it.
"It needs to be attacked at the grassroot level."
Apart from actors like Adil Hussain, Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher and Rajkummar Rao as part of the cast, the film also features Hollywood star Demi Moore in a short role.
She has patronised the movie due to her NGO Thorn that works to abolish sexual slavery and trafficking.
The larger aim, hence, is to galvanise support for organisations that work towards rescuing trafficked women and giving them a new lease of life.
Mrunal recounted how upon watching "Love Sonia" at the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival moved one man in the audience to declare that the third child he would adopt will be a victim.
"Isn't that amazing?"
Well, that can sometimes be the magic of cinema.
(Radhika Bhirani can be contacted at email@example.com)
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