Director's cut: Aparna Sen talks about her film Sonata, friendship, love, desire and censorship
When you take one glance at the three lead characters of Aparna Sen's film Sonata, you can tell that they have starkly different dispositions. And yet, they seem completely at home when they spend time together, to the extent of even revealing some dark truths to each other. The film explores exactly this — the interactions and states of mind of three unmarried women.
Shabana Azmi's Dolon Sen is a successful banker who is extremely vivacious and expressive, while Aparna Sen's Aruna Chaturvedi is more reserved and conservative, which makes her seem a prude. They live together comfortably in the same apartment but their lives are largely unexciting. The duo is visited often by Lilette Dubey's Subhadra Patel, a journalist, who lives life to its fullest, or rather pretends to do so.
Each of the lead characters looks at love and desire in different ways. Subhadra finds it difficult to live without a man, and continues to be in an abusive relationship. Aruna, the character played by Sen herself, has shut her mind to love and desire after one failed relationship, even though she continues nurture that love secretly in her heart. "I feel that Dolon (Shabana Azmi) has the most balanced attitude towards love and desire. She has turned down a marriage proposal from an IT professional ostensibly because she would have to go and settle in Seattle, but it could also be because she couldn’t bear to live without Aruna with whom she has made a home in her apartment in Mumbai," Sen explains. However, she maintains that Dolon she is very attracted to men in a healthy, robust kind of way.
At the heart of this film are female friendships. The bond shared by the three women in the film is one that has been built over decades. "Sonata explores various aspects of the ‘feminine’ and shows how women can be a source of strength for one another in spite of the differences that may exist among them. They [the characters] never ‘give up’ on their friends in spite of those differences," she explains.
The characters say that they are not feminists in the trailer. What do Sonata's characters think of women's rights and gender equality? Sen says that in the play, as in the film, the women are responsible professionals whose work is very important to them. "So they live out their lives as independent women who are equal to men, even though they may not be vocal about women’s rights and gender equality," she explains.
The trailer of the film opens with a line about how everyone in the city is "living in boxes". Sen says that this sentiment stems from the fact that they live in apartments. This means that they can look in on their neighbours and reflect on how they are growing old along with them. "Also, Dolon comments on the quality of Aruna’s short stories because the latter lacks exposure to the outside world," she explains.
Sonata is based on a play of the same name written by Mahesh Elkunchwar. Sen says that she enjoyed the experience of converting the play into a film, adding that this is the second time she has used a play as the base for a script. The first time was when she made Saari Raat based on the classic of by Badal Sarkar. When asked if any of the essence of the play is lost in the process or if she had to fill in gaps or add details, Sen said, "I don’t think that the essential flavour of the original is lost. The few changes that were made, were done with the consent of the playwright. This is always the case whether a film is based on a novel or short story or a play."
Sen's film, which is centered on three middle-aged women and their desires, will be released at a time when the censorship of films is a contentious issue in India and "women-oriented" films have faced certification-related issues. Was this a concern in her mind at all, while making the film? Sen says that when she started filming Sonata, the problem of certification with regard to Lipstick Under My Burkha had not yet happened. "But, even if it had, I think I would have gone right ahead. All the more so! It is ridiculous that a film should be refused certification because it is ‘women-oriented’. All of us need to protest against this and go on making films about women and their desires," she asserts.