The two women at the heart of Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, which I wrote about last week, differ in age, background, language, priorities — but are united by a common fate and an understanding of what they’re up against. It is after Putul and Laxmi begin to trust each other that they can forge a larger sisterhood of sex workers. Writer-director Aditya Kripalani’s programmatic zeal can feel cinematically clunky, but his core political premise is irreproachable: the world is run by men and women can only resist if they come together.
Kripalani’s film wants us to recognise sex work as a form of labour, currently carried out under drastically unfair and unsafe working conditions. His dream is a sex workers’ revolution: a krantikari sisterhood that offers both a safety net and entrepreneurial improvements.
At first sight, Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia, released last Friday, seems to share Kripalani’s themes: sex work and sisterhood. But it approaches prostitution from the opposite end. Rather than adult women who are making a choice (albeit in straitened circumstances), Love Sonia is concerned with the trafficking of children and young women into the national and international sex trade. In another contrast to Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, the sisters in Love Sonia are biological ones — and the film is about their wrenching separation rather than their coming together. In a plot that underlines Noorani’s focus on unfreedom, an indebted farmer somewhere in the Mumbai hinterland sells Preeti, the fairer of his teenaged daughters, into the flesh trade. The other daughter, Sonia (an affecting
The brothels of Mumbai have long been the site of both tragedy and villainy in Hindi cinema, and the Love Sonia version is just as depressing as what we’ve seen before. The claustrophobic small rooms, the blue painted doors, the flimsy partitions, the very young faces with painted red lips all evoke Mary Ellen Marks’ Falkland Road images from the 1970s. But with Sonia’s first cowering view of it, as she slinks past half-naked bodies heaving in dank rooms, Noorani turns this world into something almost biblically sinful, a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah. This vision of the brothel is underscored when one of its long-time inhabitants, the slightly unstable Rashmi (Freida Pinto), tells Sonia her family would have done her “kriya-karam” (her last rites) long ago. “Ab toh bas iss narak ka maja le le (Now you may as well enjoy the pleasures of this hell),” Rashmi says.
Hell has its gatekeepers. In an update of sorts on Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s legendary Maharani in Mahesh Bhatt’s 1991 Sadak, we have Manoj Bajpayee as the brothel owner Faisal, a terrifying presence who swings between quiet cajoling and violent, abusive rage. There is a pattern to Noorani’s male characters. Whether it is the girls’ father (Adil Hussain) at the family level, the village level patriarch Dada Thakur (Anupam Kher in a nicely underplayed but supremely creepy performance), or Faisal as the self-appointed father-figure of the brothel, each of these men claims to be shielding women from what lies beyond. “Baahar yeh jo jaanwar type ki duniya hai, kaun bacha raha hai tujhe usse (Who do you think is saving you from the beasts that make up the world outside)?” Faisal once yells at Sonia. But in fact these men are themselves the source of danger, their protectiveness a mere front for exploitation.
But let us return to sisterhood — and the pressures upon it. What lights up Sonia’s journey is her love for the sister she’s always taken care of. But we also see the dark shadow cast by competition. The widely accepted idea that Preeti is prettier affects Sonia’s belief in her own attractiveness. In one harrowing scene, the spectre of jealousy becomes a wall between the sisters.
Even more complicated are the teenaged Sonia’s relationships with older women in the brothel. The madam Madhuri (
The saddest comment Love Sonia makes on the sisterhood theme, though, is when it shows us how women judge each other by the standards men have set. When Rashmi tries to position herself as a surrogate sister, a stand-in for the absent Preeti, Sonia is appalled that her innocent sibling might be equated with a woman she clearly sees as ‘fallen’. “Tumhare jaise bilkul nahi hai woh,” she cries. The madonna and the whore are tragically real stereotypes — even among sex workers.
Some might argue that Noorani ends on a more hopeful note than that. Indeed, some broken bonds between women are revived, and some transformative new ones forged. And yet, it is hard not to read the tragic ends of specific female characters in terms of that disturbingly familiar Hindi movie trope: the fallen woman might atone for her sins, but she would never escape her fate.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 Sep 2018.