Film Review: Sold

In this effectively by-the-book, old-fashioned issue drama, which comes premixed with the topicality of 'Born into Brothels,' a Nepalese girl is unwittingly sold by her family to a villainous Calcutta madam.
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There is one unfortunate but very, very well-argued reason to make not-terribly-good movies like Sold. Although the prepackaged plots usually come right off the rack and they barely bother to give their characters even one full dimension, they exist for one purpose: to dramatize an issue. Sometimes the importance of the issue at hand isn’t always enough to carry one through an ineptly produced and unconvincing drama; just look at something like the 2007 human-trafficking film Trade or an eco-disaster flick like The Day After Tomorrow. These are films for people who will generally never see a documentary if they can avoid it. For those kind of viewers, Sold makes a great deal of sense.

The film’s heroine, 13-year-old Lakshmi (Niyar Saikia), is a Nepalese girl who manages that tricky act of being genteel and yet tomboy-spunky at the same time. She gambols in carefree fashion through the richly photographed landscapes, which are captured in breathtaking helicopter shots of green terraced fields, sun-glinting rivers and prayer flags snapping poetically in the sharp mountain air. Viewers, though, can see well before her that her layabout father and too-trusting mother aren’t going to be asking the right questions of Auntie Bimla (Tillotama Shome), that Indian woman who’s been hanging around talking up the plethora of great jobs in the city for brave young girls like Lakshmi.

With hardly a second thought, Lakshmi is sent off by her money-strapped parents in the care of Bimla, who, in an adroitly shot sequence, delivers her from the remote mountain countryside to the teeming bustle of Calcutta. Lakshmi, thinking she’s been hired as a servant at the “Happiness House,” is so naïve that she doesn’t understand what all the other girls are just hanging around waiting for, or why the madam, Mumtaz (Sushmita Mukherjee, whose villainous reek permeates every scene that she steals), keeps grinning knowingly at her. When she is given the facts of the matter, that she’s been sold to this brothel and yet has a years-long “debt” to pay off, Lakshmi fights, but to no avail. There are bars on the windows, thuggish men to enforce Mumtaz’s will, and drugs and restraints that make all of her resistance futile. What the film hints at, but doesn’t make clear, is the possibility that even were Lakshmi to escape, her family might not even take her back, since she would be considered dishonored.

Just as Lakshmi is shouting out the window for help, though, she is spotted by Sophia (Gillian Anderson), an American photographer working for a group called Hope House that tries to help girls like her. From that point on, the screenplay—by director Jeffrey Dean Brown with Joseph Kwong, based on the book by Patricia McCormick—only occasionally checks in with the Hope House contingent, which includes a very out-of-place-seeming David Arquette. For the most part, this is a good thing, as it shows the film trying to give agency to Lakshmi and the power of her will to resist, instead of waiting passively for rescue. But it deprives the film of much forward momentum, leaving it to the Happiness House’s vivid cast of characters, including a firecracker of a young friend named Harish (the effortlessly winning Saptarshi Basu Roychowdhury), to carry the film through to its inevitable, teary denouement.

Sold is ultimately successful at the only thing that it truly cares about: creating a living, breathing world inhabited by empathetic characters who stir the compassion of an audience who may then be moved to do something, anything, to help.

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