I have grown up watching Aparna Sen, first as an actor and later as a director and admired her in both avatars. Therefore it is no surprise that I fell a little bit in love with the first frame of this film. The eclectically decorated living room with it’s comfortable couches, rugs, tasteful artefacts, paintings and lamps; neat but lived in and loved; somehow familiar, touched me deep inside.
Based on a play of the same name by Mahesh Elkunchwar, Sonata the film is an evening in the lives of three women in the autumn of their existence. An established professor of Sanskrit, Aruna Chaturvedi (Aparna Sen) is a published author with a suitably serious demeanour. Successful senior banker Dolon Sen (Shabana Azmi) is an irrepressible charmer and fragrance addict. Globe trotting journalist Subhadra Parekh (Lillete Dubey) seems out to grab everything life has to offer, professionally, socially and sexually.
Aruna and Dolon share an apartment in the busy city of Mumbai. While career choices keep them here, both feel the pain of being away from their roots. Dolon rues Aruna’s staid existence and lack of joie de vivre while commentating on their neighbour’s everyday routine set to the minute. Aruna pretends to immerse herself in work and domestic chores to shut out Dolon’s merriment and mirth. Subhadra breezes in and out between her travel, work and men problems. The apartment is her ‘transit lounge’, a place for the weary traveller to put her feet up before she voyages forth again. The three college friends eagerly wait for Meera, their batchmate turned American resident who is in the city with the new man in her life; a stupendous occurrence for someone who has undergone a ‘gender reassignment surgery’, the politically correct term for sex change operation, as mentioned by the very proper Aruna.
It takes a tremendous courage to make an Indian English language film based on three single women almost into their silver years and I am glad a director of Aparna Sen’s calibre stepped up to the task. We have watched and enjoyed many a film on male bonding but never has an Indian filmmaker attempted to immortalise female bonding, with no other agenda or message, on celluloid. The bonding comes through beautifully, along with little bits of wistful envy, love, old hurt, betrayals, repressed guilt, unconscious desperation….all between conversation and reminiscences.
If I were to point out the best thing about the film, it would be Shabana Azmi who infuses so much life and so many layers into Dolon Sen through every look and nuance that it is difficult to focus on anyone else with her in the frame. But despite this, Aparna Sen’s portrayal of Aruna Chaturvedi catches the eye. The awkward body language, inability to be physically expressive even with her closest friends, letting go only to music that does not question or judge, Aparna Sen’s self direction is riveting. It would have been so easy for her to play the Bengali Dolon Sen and Shabana Azmi to play the north Indian, Hindi speaking Aruna Chaturvedi, but they choose to step out of comfort zones and slip into their characters with ease. Lillete Dubey has lesser screen time but essays her role with usual aplomb.
Women will enjoy Sonata it because it is easy to identify with the characters on screen. Lovers of good cinema will like the unhurried pace of this film minus the usual storyline with a definitive begining and end. My advise to everyone is to watch Sonata. It is not testosterone laden or gimmicky or slick and you may not even agree with everything you see, but it is still a very important film that dares to carve out a new path.
Copyright © Taraa Vermaa Senguptaa April 2017
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