The India-set melodrama Sold, which inveighs against the cruelty of trafficking young girls for sex slavery, was completed in 2012, when its charismatic star, Niyar Saikia, had just turned thirteen. (It has been knocking around festivals since 2014 and is set for a slow platform release in America starting in April.) I mention the lead actress’ age during filming because in several scenes her character Lakshmi is raped, and even though it’s not shown explicitly — the movie is rated PG-13 and so the sexual violence is suggested rather obliquely, such as being reflected onto the metal of a door padlock — we still sit with the knowledge that Saikia had to simulate these scenes, even one in which she must fake sex with an American rescuer (David Arquette) so as not to raise suspicion. It’s possible that Saikia, like the similarly uncomfortably underage Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, had a body double and that she was well-protected physically and psychologically, but we know what’s supposed to be happening in the scene, and wondering about the on-set circumstances of its simulation just takes us out of the movie.
There were ways to accomplish this more tastefully, or, conversely, to throw away the chance of a PG-13 rating and jump right into the lost-innocence heart of darkness, as in Pixote or Kids. But director/cowriter Jeffrey Brown, adapting a novel by Patricia McCormick, has made his choice: the movie will pluck at liberal heartstrings, like Slumdog Millionaire or The Kite Runner, two other films that turn misery into inspirational tales designed to make us leave the theater, visit the website, and donate to charities such as executive producer Emma Thompson’s foundation to help survivors of sex trafficking. A side effect is that it inflames American indignation about the terrible things done to women and girls in countries like India — you know, those swarthy, godless people with no respect for human life — when in fact, according to one figure, there are at least 100,000 child victims of sex trafficking in the United States. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get angry about atrocities that happen elsewhere. I’m saying you shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t also happen here.
How is Sold as a movie? Mostly dreary, because once Lakshmi is separated from her parents in Nepal and delivered to a brothel in India, we’re pretty much confined to her quarters — a locked cell and then a tiny excuse for a bedroom — along with her. On occasion we go outside, accompanying a little boy Lakshmi befriends as he plays with a ball or a kite. But this is very much the slummy, ugly side of India — filmed largely in a red-light district, I understand — in contrast to the idyllic though poor mountain climate of Nepal. I would’ve welcomed a few side trips back to Lakshmi’s home, because that great and powerful actress Seema Biswas, from the ferocious Bandit Queen, is wasted in a nothing role as Lakshmi’s mother.
One aspect of Sold does make me happy: the Americans who try to intervene, including Gillian Anderson in a glorified cameo as a photographer, don’t save Lakshmi — she saves herself. The Americans do find out where she’s being kept, they get the local police to stage a raid on the brothel, and Arquette’s character slips her a business card with the location of a shelter, but ultimately Lakshmi’s fate is in her own hands. This is good (as is the planted detail of chili powder, which is used to torture the girls, and which Lakshmi uses as a means of defense). What isn’t good is how simplistically Dickensian movies like this and Slumdog are.
The slimy men who frequent the brothel almost all have facial hair, the better to twirl their mustaches, and the women who capture and enslave the girls aren’t much better. Sushmita Mukherjee is all set to give a large-scale performance as the brothel’s matron, but the script consistently lets her down, robs her character of any complexity. Hector Babenco, who made an indelible icon of annihilated femaleness out of a cruel prostitute in his Pixote, would have known how to help Mukherjee get to where she was headed. And what’s the deal with everyone — including the people in that impoverished Nepal village — speaking English? How convenient for the American would-be rescuers and their counterparts in the audience.