Tabrez Noorani: “I hope that the journey of Love Sonia really resonates with audiences”

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A noted producer of such incredible films like Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Oliver Stone’s Alexander, and Lasse Hallström’s Hundred Foot Journey, Tabrez Noorani has now stepped directly behind the camera and is getting ready for the premiere of his first film as director with Love Sonia.

Set in India, Hong Kong and Los Angeles Love Sonia, which is the opening night film for the prestigious London Indian Film Festival, is said to be a breathtakingly honest and real look at the global sex trade industry. It is told through the experiences of Sonia, who according to Mr. Noorani, trafficks herself to go find and rescue her sister so that they don’t become one of the 800,000 women and children who are victims of the international sex trade industry every year.

This was a long project that all began when he first learned about the sex trade industry, but let’s let him tell you in his words. In an outstanding interview, Mr. Noorani talks about what led up to the making of Love Sonia, how his experiences and work are the basis of this story, and most his importantly his passion for this film and the subject that Love Sonia reveals resonates through every word.

Love Sonia is based on true stories that Tabrez Noorani actually experienced when working to help the girls that have been trafficked. He explains, “For me this has been 13-14 year journey. The movie is based on all real life stories and situations. Actually a lot of them are based on girls that I rescued myself over a period of 7-8 years. That is why I made the film. This all started when I discovered this through a friend of mine. I was introduced to a girl that was trafficked and was found in LA in a container. This girl had been trafficked technically from Asia, initially they weren’t sure if she was from China, but then they discovered later that she was in India as well. That is how all this started. I was aware of a trafficking problem that existed whether it was Nepal to Bombay, UK, Mexico or LA. I just did not realize how it was global. I did not realize it was global sex trafficking. That it something I did not know about so after meeting that young girl I got involved with a few NGOs. Actually I am on the board of one of the right now it is called CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking). Through them, I learned about what goes on very closely and discovered it is a massive global problem. So I work with them in LA. I work with Apne App in India and a few other NGOs in Hong Kong.”

Adding, “So basically over a period of 8-9 years while I was doing other films I would gather research. Go undercover when I could, to help out the NGOs. We would do raids. I went in blind. Initially I didn’t really know enough. Originally I was scouting locations, that was my guise, that is how I would get into these places saying that I was scouting locations. Knowing what I know now I don’t even know what I would have done or if I would have approached it the same way. These are serious, serious traffickers. These are serious dangerous people at least the ones in Bombay. It was shocking for me. I only realized all this a lot later when I realized how serious a problem this was and wasn’t. It wasn’t just the excitement of being able to go give them information and hopefully rescue a few girls, I realized later it was quite dangerous.”

He says, “Through all those stories of the people I met came the script for Love Sonia.”

Of course he is very, very passionate about this subject, “Look at the end of the day I wanted my first film, at least the one that I directed, I needed it to be something I felt very passionately about. That is why I chose Love Sonia, because obviously it is a cause I care about.”

Revealing a bit more of his thoughts on the story, he says, “It is a movie about two sisters and how one of them is trafficked and the other sister makes the decision, in essence, to almost go trafficks herself to go find her sister. It is about what happens then. It really is a classic hero story in many ways where a very simple or what we think of an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances and how she does what she does in order to try and save her sister.”

Talking about the incredible cast that includes Demi Moore, Mark Duplass, Freida Pinto, Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher, Richa Chaddha, Rajkummar Rao, and Mrunal Thakur he says they were very, very luck they all wanted to do the film. “The bottom line is that it starts with a really good script. I had a very well respected producer in Mark Womark (Producer of Life of Pi and Oscar Nominated Producer) so everyone knew that we had a serious project. When you armed with a good script that’s half the battle. The truth is it is a dream the way the cast came together because we literally had 8 weeks to put this all together. We just went after whoever we wanted and we were very lucky that all of them responded, the dates worked out and everyone said yes, which was fantastic. So we were very, very lucky. Freida and I obviously we have been working together for a long, long while. We knew this was something she was going to do and play. Richa Chaddha, we knew that this was something that she was going to want to play. In terms of everyone else, I was just very lucky that everyone was so receptive and believed in the project and in all of us.”

It took quite a while to find his Sonia, “I was looking for her for years – we went through 2,500 girls to find her. We went through an extensive casting process. We looked everywhere apart from a few different cities in India, we looked for Indian girls in LA and parts of Canada, the UK so we really went through a bunch before I found Mrunal.”

About working with the two sisters to get them ready to play these roles he says, “I wanted to make sure they had enough background because they were quite young. I did send them to a few different cities to meet with girls who are either trafficked or girls worked in different red light districts. There was a mixture of girls who were trafficked and there was a mixture of girls that are actually sex workers because I wanted them also to know the difference between the two because obviously there is a difference. So they spent a lot of time with the girls. Then I had girls who were trafficked, who had been working with NGOs, that I work with, I had them on set as consultants.”

As for the rest of the cast, they too met and spent time with the girls but there was also one-one work with Tabrez. “I gave everyone little bits of information and then we did extensive sessions with each person about their characters. It was so great because everyone took it so seriously and really sunk their teeth into it.”

Coming to Manoj Bajpayee, he says this is an unusual role for him. “Initially he was like this wow is going to be a difficult one for him. What is great is that the actors don’t judge their characters. But we did have a lot of conversations about how this is going to go down. I talked to him about the real person it is based on and told as much of his story as I could. He made lots of interesting decisions as a character that I hope that everyone is going to find that interesting.”

So does he think making this film changed the cast seeing the reality? “I think so. I think so. I know with Richa, she had just started but after doing the research she has gotten so much more involved. She works with a lot of organizations. She is kind of doing her own thing. She makes short movies about this. She did a documentary. She works for trafficked girls whenever she can. Same with Mrunal. I have connected her with NGOs that I have worked with. A lot of them have been changed. I know that Manoj and I had extensive conversations about this specifically in terms of it being global sex trafficking. A lot of them, the cast, their eyes were opened even wider.”

Mr. Noorani says it felt very natural to step into a director’s world because this is so much his film and in some ways his story. “The truth is it was very natural for me, because at least on this film, it has been so many years. It is in my blood. I know the material so well. This isn’t a movie that anybody else could have made. It was just very natural. But it was very challenging. I have way more respect now for other directors than I did before, because it is non-stop and it is completely all consuming. It was fantastic and I love it.”

I did wonder, did he ever think, oh that is what those directors were talking about when they were talking to me on set as a producer? Answering with a smile you could hear he said, “Absolutely! Absolutely I think that if I hadn’t line-produced so much and worked with so many interesting directors I think it would have been very different for me. Because I learned so much watching them. Whether it was watching Danny (Boyle) during Slumdog (Millionaire), watching Kathryn (Bigelow) while we did Zero Dark Thirty or Ang (Lee) while we did Life of Pi or even Oliver Stone during Alexander, I learned something from all of them. I think for me it was a lot easier because I had worked with so many of them and I had watched them. In many ways I learned little bits from all of them.”

The director says it was a challenge not only because of the story line but also since it was a quick shooting schedule and a small budget, “It was a tough shoot. We shot in a lot of real locations. We did shoot in a lot of real trafficking brothels and we used a lot of real people. It was definitely challenging. But the time went by very quickly though (laughs).”

The experience of making Love Sonia was fantastic, but now he feels comes the harder part, “I know that the experience for me was fantastic. It was a simple movie to make. However, after making the movie you realize, unfortunately, that is the easy part. It is about what happens after that. My partner in our company, India Take One Productions, Deepak Nayar, who is a very big and respected producer as well, he has always said listen making the movie is the easy part. It is what happens now. We want people to watch your movie. For the past year we have been working trying to get it out the right way. Platform it the right way, so fingers crossed for our release in India as well. Then hopefully we will come back over here and will either have a digital or theatrical release in the US later. We will take it from there.”

He goes on to say, “I think that at the end of the day the movie will do two things. It can be tricky. See you have to be careful in the marketing because we don’t want it to be a cause movie. It is a movie about two sisters and what happens. The most important thing is to get people to see it. When they walk out of the movie, absolutely, they are going to know more. It’s about throwing more light on this situation, on what’s happening. Opening peoples’ eyes when we can because it also takes place on three continents. That changes things slightly. Everyone realizes that Wow this is our backyard now. It makes you a bit uncomfortable, but at the same time you also realize a few things. So for us it really is a mix of both things. But, of course the desire is to throw more light on the problem that exists.”

The entire cast, crew everyone is excited that Love Sonia is premiering at the London Indian Film Festival. “London is the perfect place for it to open. It is a mix of people. It is the center of the world almost. I am very excited because you are not going to have traditional hardcore film people going to see this film. It is going to be a mixture of people hopefully from different backgrounds. It is the first time that more than 50 people would have seen the film at one go. It is very exciting for us. A lot of cast is going to be there, a lot of the crew and a lot of people that have been with me on this journey for the last 10-12 years.”

What does he hope audiences will take away with them after the experience of watching Love Sonia? “I hope that Sonia’s journey resonates with them. More importantly, we want them to work out having seen something, learned something but also we hope they walk out with hope. It is an awful, terrible problem, a global problem. We can fight it. We will start small and if everyone can do their little bit – it is something that can better and hopefully will get better. You want them to walk away with hope. One of the reasons that it took me so long to make the film is that we kept it real. It is Real! It is not rosy, it is what I saw, what I learned. It is the way things are and it is the reality of what happens. Hopefully that will resonate with people.”

Has this whole experience changed him? He replies slowly saying, “I think so. I think I was actually changed before I made the film in terms of working with the girls and having seen what they go through. In terms of making the film, like I said, I just respect directors way more now who make films than I did before and people who actually make movies no matter what it is and actually get them out there because it is not simple. You just realize how making a film about something you passionately believe in is way more difficult than making a little commercial movie. Even though they are both difficult and they both have there challenges I think that when you do something like this it is tougher. It is just tougher.”

Many of the films he has produced like Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi etc have an Indian story or aspect, so I wondered how important, especially in today’s world, is that, that he does bring these stories to life and to audiences. “It is very important. I grew up in Bombay. India Take One Productions being an India company and production service company – Pravesh Sahni my partner in Delhi, handles a lot of the India stuff. We will do Hollywood movies that shoot in India so for us it was a natural progression. They are so many amazing Indian stories. So a lot of the time you want to make sure you are able to tell those stories. Many of the new films David and I are doing some of them have nothing to do with India, some of them do. But in today’s day and age to be able to have an Indian character as an Indian is so important. This is also why I wanted my first film to be grounded there and I am glad we were able to do that.”

At the end, on the way to its release to the world, what is Mr. Noorani proudest about when it comes to Love Sonia? “I am proud about the fact that we when we made the movie, David and I, we literally did whatever we wanted to do and what we set out to do, which was to make the most realistic film, as unflinching as it could be, about global sex trafficking while not watering down the experience of what these girls go through. I am the most proud about that. For me, I was very nervous the first time when the CEOs of both of the NGOs that I work with saw the film because it is that fine line. You cannot exploit the exploiters. I wanted to make sure that we handled a few things with respect and we didn’t cross that line, but at the same time we made sure that the audience went through a lot of what these girls went through. I think at this point I am proudest about the fact that we were able to do that. Whatever is going to happen with the film is going to happen. We obviously want people to see it, that is going to be the biggest thing but I am very proud that we were able to pull that off.”

Love Sonia makes it debut on the world on June 21st in London. It is a film not to be missed!

Be sure to also check out our amazing interviews with Mrunal Thakur and Frieda Pinto!

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