‘Sold’ Sheds Light on Horrors of Sex Trafficking in India

The film tells the story of a 13-year-old working in a brothel in Kolkata.
(Photo: Courtesy Jeffrey D. Brown)
Mar 20, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

From gruesome beatings to brutal rapes, the realities of human trafficking are difficult to hear, let alone watch. But one filmmaker hopes that stepping into the shoes of a sex-trafficked victim will encourage audiences to take action.

“I really wanted to do something with film where real children could be affected and helped,” Sold director Jeffrey D. Brown told TakePart.

Sold tells the story of a 13-year-old Nepali girl named Lakshmi, portrayed by Niyar Saikia. After accepting money from a woman who claims to be able to find work for Lakshmi as a domestic worker, her parents send her to Kolkata, India. Lakshmi finds herself trapped in a brothel called Happiness House, where she’s repeatedly drugged, beaten, and forced to pay off her debt through sex work. Lakshmi’s screams for help catch the attention of an American photographer, played by Gillian Anderson, who works with a local organization to orchestrate a raid on the brothel.

Although Lakshmi is a fictional character, her story mirrors those of thousands of Nepali girls. Roughly 20,000 children are trafficked out of Nepal each year, according to figures from one of the film’s partners, U.K.-based NGO Childreach International.

The film, based on a novel of the same name by Patricia McCormick, made the rounds on the independent film circuit in 2014 and will be released in U.S. theaters on April 1. Just one day after reading the book, Brown started working to obtain the film rights.

“Part of the reason that this book in particular was so moving to me was it’s written in a kind of prose poetry,” he said. “It really brings you inside the spirit and heart of this kid as she’s going through this horrific and brutal process.” He strove to create the film in a similar style, putting viewers in Lakshmi’s shoes. The film steers clear of graphic imagery, instead using a montage of scenes to indicate the frequency of abuse that Lakshmi and the other girls endure.

Brown and his partners are taking money generated from the film to build residence facilities and fund vocational and therapeutic programs for girls who have been rescued or kicked out because they’ve contracted HIV. While researching the film, Brown and his crew went to more than half a dozen nonprofit organizations in India and Nepal and met girls who had nowhere to turn.

“They really can’t go back home...because of the stigma and shame, because their families won’t accept them,” Brown explained.

In the film, that lack of options is revealed through the character of Monica. After working in the brothel for years, she’s finally able to pay her debt and return home. But just a few days later, she is back at Happiness House after her family refuses to take her back. A few days afterward, Monica is out on the street again after a doctor reveals she is HIV-positive.

“They need to be taught skills that are going to be marketable and high-paid, because they’re alone in the world,” Brown said, adding that many of the teens he met had young children of their own to support.

Along with caring for victims of human trafficking, the film is also paired with an education initiative, “Taught Not Trafficked,” to get at the root causes of human bondage. Rates of human trafficking have climbed in Nepal following last year’s earthquakes, which damaged more than 5,000 schools. Children not attending school are likely to find themselves unaccompanied and more vulnerable to traffickers who lure them away from home with promises of a better life, according to Childreach International. Screenings of the film have already produced positive results, with one showing in the U.K. making enough money to rebuild 14 schools in Nepal, according to Brown.

Sold will also be cut down into a 50-minute educational version that can be shown in schools to help raise awareness.

“The idea is, let’s get this [film] into schools all over the world and create a generation of teenagers who will not accept this going forward,” Brown said. “This can be something we collectively address and change. It must be.”