Stars defend Indian sex slavery film after box office flop

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, Jan 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Despite a star cast, strong reviews and awards, a gritty movie about human trafficking bombed at the Indian box office and its director said sex slavery was a taboo too far for the public.

“Love Sonia” tells the true story of a girl who is trafficked from rural India into the global sex trade, and stars Freida Pinto and Demi Moore.

The movie had proved tough to fund but opened in India in September after snaring awards on the global festival circuit.

“India was not ready for a movie like this,” director Tabrez Noorani said after the British premiere late on Wednesday night.

Despite the big names and critical acclaim, it tanked in Noorani’s home country, where audiences are more routinely fed a Bollywood diet of romance, song and dance.

“A movie like this would never normally get a big release in India – but it opened in 350 screens due to the star-studded cast,” he said in a panel discussion after the London screening.

“It didn’t do well at the box office,” Noorani said, a rare admission in an industry long on hype.

The film has grossed about 16.5 million rupees (177,000 pounds) in India, according to the website “Box Office India”.

Actress Richa Chadha said she hoped the poor box office showing would not deter filmmakers in India from being as bold.

“It might be used … by producers as a reason not to make such serious films but focus instead on Bollywood hits,” she said. “But it got amazing reviews, it’s a conversation starter.”

Noorani joined U.S.-based anti-trafficking groups on brothel raids to research the film, seeing first hand the existence of millions of Indian girls and women trapped in the sex trade.

India is home to at least 8 million slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation – which puts the global figure of people trapped in slavery at 40.3 million.

Government figures show India recorded more than 8,000 human trafficking cases in 2016, up a fifth from the previous year. However, human rights activists say many cases are unreported.

Many victims come from rural areas and are lured with offers of jobs in cities. Instead they are forced to work in brick kilns or farms, enslaved in homes as maids, or sold to brothels.

Pinto, who appeared in the Academy Award-winning “Slumdog Millionaire”, said that starring in “Love Sonia” had not been a gamble despite sensitivities surrounding trafficking in India.

“No film that exposes truth and suffering is a risk … especially when it is done sensitively and with knowledge,” Pinto told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after the screening.

“This film focuses on a subject matter that needs to be talked about – both in India and beyond.” (Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)