Meena is available to watch for free at the film’s website.
Actress Lucy Liu chose an important subject for her directorial debut, a short film about sex slavery called Meena. However, the film’s abbreviated length forces the omission of critical contextual information.
For starters, the title is misleading. Meena (Tannishtha Chatterjee) isn’t really the main character; her daughter, Naina (Sparsh Khanchandani), is.
Meena Haseena is a real person whose story features in the wonderful book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Sold into prostitution at age eight, Meena eventually escaped, leaving behind a daughter who also grew up in a life of sex slavery. After more than a decade, Meena rescued her daughter with the help of a non-governmental organization (NGO) working to liberate victims of human trafficking.
Elements of Meena’s tortured childhood are shown in flashbacks, but much of the action in the twenty-minute-long movie focuses on Naina’s present circumstances. Not yet a teenager, Naina has already developed the survival skills necessary to endure a life of brutalization. She counsels another young prostitute to accept that this is their reality.
Naina’s only clue that someone on the outside is plotting her rescue is a strange woman — whom she doesn’t know is Meena, her mother — who twice storms into the brothel, shouting Naina’s name. On both occasions, Meena leaves after being beaten by the madam’s strongman, Manooj (Vikas Shrivastav).
It’s disappointing to see Chatterjee’s immense talent wasted in such a small role. All she does is scream and get beaten up. When Meena finally succeeds in liberating Naina, we are given no context for how she accomplished the feat. How did she contact the NGO? What planning went into the rescue? Is her life in danger?
As frustrating as the lack of context is, the rescue’s suddenness forces the audience to empathize with Naina. Every adult she’s ever known has abused her. Manooj follows his mock-sympathetic encouragement with a slap. So when a stranger arrives to take her from the only home she’s ever known — as awful as it is — Naina is confused at best, terrified at worst.
Liu spends a lot of time visually emphasizing the horrors of sexual slavery. However, it’s fair to assume that most of the audience already believes it to be horrible. We don’t need to see a flashback of Manooj zipping his fly as gets out of bed after raping eight-year-old Meena.
The scene that most effectively illustrates the gulf between regular folks and the aberrant sexuality of a pedophile is a scene in which Naina and some other girls are trotted out to dance for the customers. The girls wear midriff-baring tops and such garish make-up that they look ridiculous, but the urge to laugh quickly disappears when one realizes that there are real-life perverts who find a child in such attire arousing. The scene hits home without being in any way salacious.
Meena is at its best when it explores the psychology of the women forced into slavery and the conditions that make it hard for them to escape, but the movie simply isn’t long enough to look deeply into such matters. If only Liu had been able to make a feature-length film about the same subject.