Aparna Sen’s Sonata is about three, middle-aged women, two of who share the same, posh flat in Mumbai while the third one, the flighty journalist lives elsewhere but flits in and out of their flat and their lives every now and then. Sen is a master in expressing female bonding in the language of cinema and she breaks every rule in the cinema book to explore this in great depth through Sonata. But unfortunately this does not make it a good film that you take along with you out of the theatre.
The word ‘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 Aparna Sen’s recent film Sonata, 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 or more sonata form’. The timeframe is caught within a single day and night: the 25th of November 2008, the night before that terrible terrorist attacks took place in Mumbai that took a toll of many innocent lives including some in some of the best hotels in the city.
But metaphors, visual, narrative-centric, character-centric, or musical or even allegorical, can be rather dicey especially when a director of the calibre of Aparna Sen takes on a single-set chamber play to turn into a celluloid statement. Sonata (2000) is an English language play authored by noted Maharashtrian playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar. Elkunchwar is an influential figure in contemporary Indian theatre for three decades and writes mostly in Marathi. His plays have national and international presence, and are now read, performed, and studied in various parts of the world. His plays are rooted more in the human psyche than in social issues. But from within the human psyche, significant questions on relationships within the family, friends, etc. crop up.
Aparna Sen’s Sonata is about three, middle-aged women, two of who share the same, posh flat in Mumbai while the third one, the flighty journalist who is later accused of ‘moral turpitude’ by her boss and thrown out of her job, lives elsewhere but flits in and out of their flat and their lives every now and then. Aruna (Aparna Sen) is glued to her laptop the whole time, researching for her scholarly book on Sanskrit. She is a puritan who has fixed rules against smoking, drinking and of course, as her friend and flat-mate Dolon (Shabana Azmi) points out acidly, hugging and kissing. The same Dolon belts out the sombre and subtle Tagore number ‘Aaaji jhorer raatey tomaar obhishaar’ when Aruna asks her yet, in another moment, easily breaks Aruna’s mood when she is listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
The narrative is straightforward and the small flashback snippets are vocally presented mainly by Aruna and Dolon who purge their self-imposed feelings of guilt and anger and complaints during this long wait from beginning to end. There is just one tiny flashback of Aruna with an artist (Kalyan Ray) she was once in a relationship with who she meets at an art gallery many years later but they do not speak. Does this make the editor’s job a cakewalk? Not really because the film is almost cloistered in décor that is more cluttered and put-on than what would have appeared natural. Dolon’s persistent observations of another middle-aged lady in another apartment who constantly keys in on her computer keyboard does not blend into the rest of the story and detracts from the subject at hand – friendship, independence and loneliness.
Sen is a master in expressing female bonding in the language of cinema and she breaks every rule in the cinema book to explore this in great depth through Sonata. The film is almost totally devoid of male presence except in a few snippety modes that are well brought out. Youth is another market factor that is absent in this film. Sen excels in portraying three middle-aged women of which two lead lives entirely on their own terms and yet try to discover happiness and fulfillment in ways they choose to. But does that rid them of their essential loneliness? The décor of the plush apartment filled with works of art, a phonograph, what looks like an enviable collection of rare gramophone records clubbed with a well-stocked bar, a library of books, shelves filled with DVDs of films, and a kitchenette kept mainly out of the frame provides an example of material affluence that perhaps justifies them the luxury of loneliness. It would be interesting to find out what would have happened had these three ladies belonged to a slum community struggling to remain marginalized. The film would have unfolded differently. Sen, however, is true to her personal experience as a woman, an actress and a director. She has taken great care to choose the decor of the apartment to establish a definite relationship between the decor and her two protagonists Aruna and Dolon. But this is also justified by the fact that it is an English language film. There are interesting quips. Aruna is saddened when her trip back home is nixed by her family. Along the way we find Aruna who was forced to sip from that forbidden glass of wine actually beginning to enjoy it.
Dolon is almost the polar opposite of Aruna. She loves to live life to the full, promising to take up a diet while constantly chewing on cashew nuts and chocolate and washing it down with wines and liquors. She has her differences with Aruna constantly yet they are bound together by that one word – loneliness. Into their lives enters Subhadra (Lilette Dubey), like a storm, dressed in a bright red top and tight-fitting jeans and made-up with bright red lipstick desperately to look half her age and failing because her face, hidden by large glares, bears the ugly scars of the bashing she gets from her current boyfriend. She does not live with these two women basically because she loves the smell of ‘man’ as she unabashedly gloats when Dolon tries to dab her with a French perfume. She perhaps, through some perverted sense of romance or sex or whatever you call it, begins to enjoy the bashing her boyfriend gives her. “This is a man-woman thing. You won’t understand,” she tells Aruna not realizing the cruelty she inflicts on her friend through those few words. This minute she is breaking into a jig on the lines of ‘Babuji dheerey chalna’ and the next, she is rushing back to the apologizing boyfriend as if that is the key to her very existence.
Neel Dutt’s subtle and versatile musical score with interpolations of Tagore, Beethoven and a Hindi film song helps the film which otherwise looks like a drab chamber drama being shot on camera. The cinematography, especially with reference to the orchestration and choreography of the lighting, is good though a bit too dark at places that takes away the visual richness of a given scene. Intellectual references are likely to go right over the heads of the mass audience because there are one too many.
Not all plays are cinema-friendly and Sonata is a living evidence of this belief. It is a character-centric film entirely dependent on and determined by the performances of the three actors including the side role of their friend Meera (Anasuya Majumdar) who is making a documentary on her personal experience. With Shabana letting herself go from the word ‘go’ till she belts the Tagore number in her own voice through Aparna casting herself against the grain to Lilette as the ageing bombshell, the performances are brilliant. But, all said and done, they fail to hold the film together. The long wait for Meera who has promised to visit them with her foreign boyfriend builds up to a dramatic climax that leaves one cold rather than electrified because the climax does not jell at all with all that has gone before in the name and shape of the loneliness of three women brought together by that strangest twist of destiny called friendship. It is a rather tame ending to what, knowing Sen, could have turned out into a electrifying climax.
At one level, friendships are very simple. They are the bonds between people who enjoy one another’s company. But probe deeper and it is evident that there is no consensus about what it means. Friendship is a space that is filled with hidden assumptions and unspoken rules. We only discover that our friendship doesn’t mean what we think it does when those assumptions clash. All these features are established very well in Sonata. But this does not make it a good film that you take along with you out of the theatre. It is not anywhere near 36, Chowringhee Lane that haunted you for days after you had watched it, or, like Parama, that triggered in you questions you never imagined asking of yourself. Nor is it like The Japanese Wife that taught you that love can be born, sustained and preserved even with the pair never meeting one another physically. At the end of it all, one must sadly admit that Aparna Sen, one of the finest filmmakers who has been consistently redefining herself through a versatile oeuvre in terms of subjects and relationships, has somehow, failed to deliver in and with Sonata.
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