Sonata movie review: Aparna Sen's film about three friends has potential to be much more
When you walk into a theatre to watch a film directed by Aparna Sen, starring herself, Shabana Azmi and Lillete Dubey, you expect the film to be exceptional. When you learn that it is adapted from a play written by Mahesh Eklunchwar, you are intrigued to know how the story will play out on the big screen. Sadly, Sonata is just not as impactful as one expects.
Sonata chronicles the events that take place one evening in Dolon Sen and Aruna Chaturvedi's apartment in Mumbai. Dolon Sen, played by Shabana Azmi, is an affluent banker who is very friendly and loving, while Aparna Sen's Aruna Chaturvedi is a reserved professor and writer. Their friend Subhadra Parekh (Lillete Dubey), a journalist who "lives life to the fullest", drops in after her lover beats her up. The trio is to be visited by an old college friend.
In isolation, the characters are very interesting and layered. Sadly, the way that they are portrayed seems forced, making them look flat and uni-dimensional. It is as though the actors were given bullet points of traits and told to focus on them, so as to differentiate them from each other.
There are moments when the characters seem genuine and one is able to form a connection with them, such as when the characters are laughing and realising that they have not laughed that hard in a very long time, or when Subhadra is throwing heavy objects through the window at her lover and Dolon offers her a wine bottle. When they are not over-analysing their own selves and their deepest emotions are brought to the forefront, one is able to empathise with them.
The one character whose depth is displayed is Aparna Sen's own Aruna Chaturvedi. She has directed herself commendably well. Guarded and largely removed from excessive emotion, she is very honest about her disposition and does not feel the need to defend herself. She is particularly endearing when she tries a sip of wine; the expression on her face is a mix of guilt and naughtiness, which seems completely in character.
For a film that is so heavily dependent on conversation, Sonata's writing seems verbose at times, and engaging at others. Notably, this film is adapted from a play, and perhaps the lines — where Dolon appreciates how beautiful Aruna looks when she is listening to Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' or when Aruna says that Shakespeare and Kalidasa are some of her closest friends — would seem more natural if they were said on stage. In a film, these lines like, "Does one really need a man to understand what Subhi is going through?" seem like they are being forced into the speaker's mouth.
Another part of the film that seemed a little less believable is the way that Dolon and Aruna make small talk. One would imagine that after living together for over two decades, they would get used to each other. It is the kind of comfort one shares with a spouse or family member, where everyday conversations are undramatic and without frills. It seems a little odd that Dolon and Aruna would invest so much energy at the end of a tiring work day discussing philosophies about life.
But there are scenes in the film when the conversational ping-pong will make you laugh, such as the argument Dolon and Aruna have over the former's looks. Aruna corrects Dolon when she says that she is still beautiful, insisting that she used to be good looking, and Dolon finally agrees with her after throwing a fit. Another instance that is particularly funny is when they discuss how their house help dissed them for not understanding what it is like to have children.
Sonata is a meditation on happiness and compromises; here is a trio of women who decided not to settle down with men but do not seem unsettled. They acknowledge that there is no point of asking 'what-if' questions, because life has passed them by and because they are quite content. The film also discusses how demons of the past can continue to haunt us in the present and future, but that love and friendship can help us to better deal with them. In this respect, the film is a success because it made a 21-year-old connect to the crises that middle-aged women were undergoing.
The film has an inconclusive ending, which can be interpreted as how we often live life occupied by our struggles, not realising that it can end suddenly and without notice. This is why it is important to reflect on life and be honest about how we want to live it, in order to feel happy and satisfied. I was once told that the mark of a good poem is that you emerge a different person after having read it. This, I believe, is true of any kind of art, however good or bad. With its premise and the sheer talent of its cast, I was disappointed by Sonata because it did not leave me feeling any different.