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The revelatory Niyar Saikia in Sold

Slavery, most of us will agree, is a bad thing. Based on a novel by Patricia McCormick, Sold (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, April 15) casts light on the crisis of child slavery – a significant issue worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization – and does a decent job of it, despite some unfortunate casting.

Beginning in Nepal — which appears to all intents and purposes to be as idyllic (if much wetter) than the fictional Shangri-La of Lost Horizon fame — Sold focuses on the travails of 12-year old Lakshmi (Niyar Saikia). The daughter of an unemployed lay-about who prefers a bottle to a pay check, the youngster is determined to contribute towards a tin replacement for the family’s leaky straw roof.

Opportunity arises when a visiting “auntie” promises to take the girl to the land of milk and honey (otherwise known as India), where she will soon earn enough money to buy a new roof. The fact that her job will involve selling her body while being held captive in a big city brothel, however, is a secret auntie chooses not to share with either Lakshmi or her parents. 

Upon arriving at the ironically named Happiness House, Lakshmi quickly learns the truth and makes a failed escape attempt, after which brothel madam Mumtaz (Sushmita Muhkerjee) — to whom Lakshmi is now deeply in debt for transportation and living expenses – lashes the girl’s feet and puts her in chains. Worse soon follows.

For the most part grimly realistic, Sold is an absolute winner when it focuses on the conflict between the monstrous Mumtaz and her young prisoners. Unfortunately, the inclusion of a pair of American characters – no doubt required to assure funding and distribution for the film — serves as an unwelcome and unneeded distraction.

Sophie (Gillian Anderson from The X-Files) is a photojournalist working on a piece about Hope House, a Kolkata charity where fellow Yank Sam (David Arquette) works to improve the lot of the city’s many underprivileged children. In comparison to the film’s richly developed Indian and Nepali characters, they’re virtual ciphers about whom we know very little.

We do learn that Sophie has a 12-year old daughter of her own, explaining her interest in Lakshmi’s plight – discovered while, disguised as a nun(!), she distributes health care information to neighborhood women. Sam, on the other hand, is as flat and one-dimensional as a cardboard cutout, and if neither character were in the film you wouldn’t miss them one bit (and Sold would be just as good, or probably better, than it is).

Though Anderson and Arquette seem to be phoning it in, the film’s Indian actors are a revelation. In her first screen role, Saikia effectively projects childlike joy, wounded innocence and disbelief in equal measure, while Mukherjee’s performance as the ogreish Mumtaz suggests a future essaying the roles of some of Dickens’ less pleasant characters (she would also make a fine Madame de la Rougierre, should Sheridan le Fanu’s “Uncle Silas” ever be filmed again).

Director Jeffrey Brown will be taking questions after the Elmwood’s 4:10 and 7 p.m. shows on Saturday, April 16.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...