Sonata 103 min (A)
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Aparna Sen, Lillete Dubey
Direction: Aparna Sen: **
THE CURTAIN rises to reveal a lovely living space. It looks and feels like the warm, animated, throbbing heart of a home. The kitchen, complete with a dinning table, flows into a lounge-cum-sitting area with TV, which leads to a small study table on one end and a bar at the other. And all of it, in unison, opens out to a terrace that overlooks the tall apartment buildings of Mumbai.
At one end sits a woman in a beautiful white handloom saree, working at her computer, trying to concentrate. At the other end is the cleaning woman making annoying noises with pots and pans.
Professor Aruna Chaturvedi (Aparna Sen), busy trying to translate sutras, keeps getting disturbed. But she doesn’t say anything, just pulls her face in exasperated expressions.
Enter Dolan Sen (Shabana Azmi), just as the Bai is leaving, after announcing to an unresponsive Aruna that she’ll be taking a day off, tomorrow.
There’s brief griping with the Bai, who leaves after taking a jab at the two “familyless women”.
Now it’s just Dolon and Aruna in the room, chatting, passing time as they wait for a friend, Meena Rao, to arrive.
This space, this room is all we see in Aparna Sen’s Sonata, based on a play of the same name by Mahesh Elkunchwar. This is where the film sulks, laughs, hurts and lives.
WITH CONVERSATIONS, initiated mostly by Dolon — about dinner, their mutual friend Subhadra (Shubi) who speaks pidgin English, abuses and lives life on her own terms — which are both, steams of consciousness and moments of deliberate disregard, the characters begin to reveal themselves.
While Aruna has impressive academic books standing around her desk, Dolon has empty perfume bottles alongside full wine bottles decorating the bar.
Occasionally she sniffs her “beautiful junk”, because in these empty bottles, she says, a scent lingers, a scent that contains a moment, a memory.
Dolon, a compulsive eater who keeps planning to go on a strict diet while snacking, seeks Aruna’s attention and approval.
Aruna, “a straight-laced middle class UPite”, is mildly indifferent, self-contained. She needs peace, quite.
One knits, other eats cheese, drinks wine, hums.
One disapproves of the other; the other carries a secret that makes her needy.
Into this slightly solemn, depressing setting barges in Subhi (Lillete Dubey), huffing and puffing in her red T-shirt and hiding a black eye under her large dark glasses.
The room perks up immediately, as if the arrival of “wanton” Subhi is the announcement of an impromptu party.
As the three women laugh, shout, tell stories, Aruna decides to have her first drink.
And soon, after several drinks have been had, comes the film’s most delightful, empowering moment. It’s when these three seemingly old, past-their-prime, greying women who are mildly inebriated, show their middle finger to the disapproving world from their apartment.
They call themselves “awful, self-centred, without any ideology, commitment… decadent”, and yet happy, “unabashedly happy, abominably, obscenely happy… Nirlajjam sada sukhi”.
This is the moment when Sonata leaps out and grabs you by the elbow, asking you to come pour a drink, join the boisterous laughter. Who cares what the joke is.
For the rest, it’s a pretentious, stilted play that’s been forced on to the screen.
SONATA, WRITTEN and directed by Aparna Sen, is a deeply flawed film. If it can, in fact, be called a film at all.
Adapting a play for a film requires some skill, a lot of imagination. Spaces, people, moments, interplay between characters, camerawork, dialogue — all need to be reimagined.
Else, you could simply place a few cameras on tripods, scream action and go out for a smoke.
Govind Nihalani’s Party (1984), also based on Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play, made the transition beautifully, memorably.
Ms Sen doesn’t do that.
The problem with Sonata begins with its writing and extends to the direction.
Her Sonata is simply a play transported to the celluloid without much cinematic thought or intervention.
The actors speak in stagey dialogue, their movements — when they enter, exit, sit or move — are deliberate, and without any fluidity.
The silences between dialogue — as ubiquitous in theatre as the rocking chair, which incidentally has a pride of place here — work so well in theatre, but here they make the film starched and stiff.
The other problem is that Aparna Sen has plonked another, rather maudlin, tacky climax on the one written by Mr Elkunchwar.
That makes Sonata a lesser film than it would have been otherwise.
THE ACTING by all three — Shabana Azmi, Aparna Sen, Lillette Dubey — is average. But together these talented, gorgeous actresses are an intimidating powerhouse and make sure the film grows on you.
Together they create a fun, lively world and claim this artificial space, marking it with their emotional outbursts, their boxes of high-calorie kaju, while dangling a glass in hand.
Women of my vintage will totally connect with some moments in this film, moments of silliness, moments which you can sniff later and laugh at.
People from all other genders and demography will mostly find Aparna Sen’s Sonata pakau.