“I wonder if this is going to have a Slumdog feel to it?” The man next to me asked as we waited to be let into the theater at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood last week. This was the world premiere of Jeffrey D Brown’s Sold
at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA)
on 8 April. Based on Patricia McCormick’s acclaimed novel
of the same name, Sold is a story of a young Nepali girl’s excruciating journey to a brothel in Kolkata.
Given the prominence sexual violence had received in India over the past year, IFFLA’s decision to screen Sold as this year’s opening feature film was likely intended to make a statement about the Festival’s commitment to social justice. An impressive entourage of Indian, American and Nepali actors - Gillian Anderson (X-Files), David Arquette (Never Been Kissed), Seema Biswas (Water), Tillotama Shome (Monsoon Wedding) Hari Bansha Acharya, and Madan Krishna Shrestha and celebrated British actress (Emma Thompson) as the executive producer -- ensured that the Sold premiere was sold out.
Sex trafficking from Nepal into India has received significant international coverage and has become the subject of numerous documentary projects. Today, this trafficking route has been replaced by sexual slavery within Nepal, trafficking of women to the Gulf to work as household help, as well as young Nepali women sold for prostitution across the northern border in Tibet.
As the theater lights dimmed, I was a bit apprehensive that Sold would further re-affirm the stereotype of victimhood that characterises Nepal’s geopolitical relations with India. Sure enough, the first moments of the film draw the audience into the impoverished but innocent setting of a Nepali village where we meet Lakshmi (Niyar Saikia), the film’s 13 year-old protagonist and her struggling farmer parents.
Set against a picturesque Himalayan backdrop, the family’s daily struggles escalate as heavy rain destroys their harvest. At a village celebration, Lakshmi encounters a young woman who offers her work in the capital. With promises of a good income, Lakshmi’s family is easily lured into signing a ‘deal.’
We then see Lakshmi set off on a journey that eventually ends in a Kolkata brothel. For the rest of the film, Nepal and her family become a painful and nostalgic memory, as Lakshmi battles and suffers through the realities of forced commercial sex work.
Though Nepal is important to the overall story, the country’s role in the film is small and symbolic, leaving space for the film to focus on character development and personal stories. As Lakshmi experiences episodes of extreme cruelty, we cringe in disgust. There are also beautiful moments of humanity and solidarity, that provide much needed hope in the brothel’s otherwise dreary world.
Jeffrey Brown answered questions afterwards and somewhat surprisingly didn’t spend time discussing his film-making process but instead focused on sex trafficking. He noted that sexual slavery was happening in the US as well and asked the audience to become a part of the solution.
The enthusiastic response from the audience to the film that night was a reminder that a feature film can do much more than entertain, it can become a real anchor for movements.
Descent into Hell