Shoma A. Chatterji
Sonata is Aparna Sen’s latest feature film. After a long time, she has made an English-language film which was the language she chose for directorial debut 36, Chowringhee Lane more than 30 years ago. The film turned her into one of the best directors in Indian cinema overnight. It was not without reason, because it dealt with the suddenly marginalised English-speaking Anglo-Indian school teacher of English literature who feels she is unwanted in her own land after India has become Independent.
But Sonata is different. “It is originally an English language play authored by the noted Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar who usually writes in Marathi. I had seen this play staged in Kolkata some time ago by my friend Sohag Sen and her group. I liked the play and the unusual idea it projected,” says Aparna of this new film. Sonata, the film, is like a chamber drama where two middle-aged single women live together under the same roof, are close yet lonely within themselves and the entire film unfolds within the living room and its extensions, not moving out unless the huge television screen brings the outside world in.
Sonata means “a composition for an instrumental soloist, often with a piano accompaniment, typically in several movements with one or more in sonata form.” In this film, Beethoven’s famous composition is used but the term also stands as a metaphor for the ‘solo’ lives of the three women taken in individually while the ‘togetherness’ is comprised in the ‘accompaniment in several movements with one of more sonata form.”
“Everything happens in that same place, in the living room of these two women. One of them is Aruna Chaturvedi, a professor of Sanskrit and the other is Dolon Sen, a Bengali banker who sings Tagore songs beautifully. Another friend, Subhadra, a Gujarati journalist, often storms into their lives and adds some more peppiness to it and then goes away. I wished to explore the female bonding underlying the story of three middle-aged women who are quite successful in their professional lives and try to seek relief from their inner loneliness by being together,” explains Aparna Sen.
These three women bring the outer world inside with their conversations that revolve around the sudden appearance and expected visit of another friend of theirs, Meera Rao, a filmmaker, who has stopped over at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai for a discussion with her financiers about a documentary she is planning on her own life as a transgender who underwent sex reassignment surgery to change from Sameer to Meera.
“We do not have many films based on female bonding, the normal one without suggestions of alternative sex. I liked the changing moods and their interplay among these three women, each her own person, living life on her own terms and yet feeling close to one another. I wished to demolish the common belief that when two women get together, they are at each other tooth and nail or, sit down to have a gossip at the expense of others. I do not believe this is true. It happens but it is not a stereotype and I wanted to break this stereotype. Sonata is more an exploration of the feminine conscious than anything else,” she added.
Does this mean that everything is sweet and syrupy between and among these three and that they never fight or quarrel or run at each other’s throats? “No, no not at all. They are as different from one another as chalk from cheese and they do have their differences that sometimes grow into fights but at the end of it all, there is this quiet acceptance of what the other woman stands for and respecting her for being what she is,” she elaborates.
The actor and character-centric film, perhaps the most character-centric film in her entire oeuvre, Sonata gloats over the sterling performance of Shabana Azmi as the fun-loving, plain-speaking, smoking, drinking and forever guzzling Dolon Sen, who, beneath that bubbly exterior, hides her secrets and her pains that sometimes fill her with guilt feelings. “Shabana is a very close friend of mine for many years and she jumped at the role the minute I called her up. She even learnt Rabindra Sangeet to sing two Tagore songs in the film and you must see it to believe what a perfectionist she is,” explains Aparna.
Beethoven’s famous composition, Moonlight Sonata, is perhaps the most touching background score that enriches the ambience and the mood in the film when Aruna puts the music on, reclines on an easy chair, closes her eyes to suck in the mood the piece exudes. Then, the mood breaks when the bubbly, talkative and determined foodie Dolon intrudes into her mental space and disturbs the ambience of romance.
In response to what precisely she is trying to put forth through Sonata, Aparna said, “I do not wish to ‘put forth anything through my films. Let us say that this is about a moving friendship between and among three women who are passing through a mid-life crisis. The question of living together under the same roof, not living together, moving away, love, marriage, remaining single by choice or circumstance or both, zeroing in on how they really wish to live their lives fully though burdened under the pressures of age catching up on them, all these processes are woven into each other Then, something terrible happens that makes their personal pains and sorrows and losses seem trivial.”
The entire film is set against a Mumbai backdrop that gives it a cosmopolitan feel. The time span is an entire day and night and the exact date in the eve of 26th November 2011 when that terrible terrorist attack on the Taj Palace and other hotels happened.