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Times of India
Three intelligent, self-sufficient women debate companionship, compromises and compassion over wine, cheese and (sour) grapes.
You’d sooner see a flying saucer streak across the night sky than an Indian film with three 60-plus female protagonists who aren’t playing doting mothers, dying aunts or devious matchmakers. Kudos to Aparna Sen for pulling this lost demographic out of the shadows.
In Sonata, a movie adaptation of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play, Sen casually invites us into the lives of three women in the their sunset years.
Aruna (Sen) is a linguistic scholar who won’t stand foul language; she’s comfortable living by the social code of a time whose scriptures she deciphers. While she’s in her prudish cocoon, her long-time friend and roommate Dolon (Azmi) is the butterfly that Aruna never quite morphed into. Dolon is the little devil on Aruna’s shoulder, always coaxing her into things that she’s uncomfortable with. The movie thrives on the nervous energy between Aruna and Dolon. The possibility of a subtle romantic subtext there is intriguing and handled smartly. Their third friend Subi (Dubey) flits in and out of their house and gives them something to think about with every visit.
The movie has an unmissable Woody Allen influence, where the plot is merely a crutch to display well-rounded, vibrant characters. So while you cannot summarize the story, you can best describe it as an evening spent chatting with friends - you being the designated listener - where you are amused by Dolon’s indecision, Aruna’s meekness and Subi’s bouts with her men.
And like all evenings with friends, there will be awkward silences when you will momentarily zone out when a character is droning about Beethoven, or an actor is delivering a heightened performance. In a play, this is charming. Sen hasn’t quite altered the screenplay or the treatment to fit this new medium. Static shots and indulgent conversations are Sonata's bane.
However, it is rare for unapologetic narratives about older single women (who "aren't even feminists!") to find their way to the screen. This is the kind of movie that you need to sip and savour. It won’t go well with popcorn and soda, but it’s worth a visit to the theatre anyway.
When a middle-aged spinster settles down with her knitting yarn, she's barely bothered by her roommate's jibes — who finds the activity to be boring. As if seeking validation, she breaks into a monologue about the numerous benefits of interlocking wool to create fabric. "I find it to be therapeutic, you begin to organise your thoughts, your mind becomes clearer and things tend to fall in place..." Based on a play by the same name by Mahesh Elkunchwar, Sonata is an overdose of prose, a vomit of words, a lethargic and laboured attempt at communication. Too much to bear? So is a large part of this film despite its crisp runtime.
In the winter of her life, award-winning author, professor and an "authority on historical scriptures", Aruna Charturvedi or Oru (Aparna Sen) shares an apartment with her college friend and banker Dolan Sen (Shabana Azmi). Dolan admittedly "sways through life with abandon" and prances across the screen to literally convey this. "I earn a lot and I spend a lot," she says, spraying French perfume on herself. "Perfume makes me swoon, it's empty [dramatically inhales] but how it lingers," she observes.
The evening progresses with Dolan munching on cashew, cheese and wine, while Aruna grumbles about how she'd rather be left to her devices to work on her next literary contribution. Evidently, the two self-indulgent spinsters seem to ritually indulge in such verbose yet empty banter. That an old friend happens to be visiting this evening promises to throw off this routine.
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But not before a a regular fixture — Subhadra Parekh or Subi (Lillete Dubey), a journalist by profession and a battered lover in her personal life — makes an appearance. Wearing dark shades to conceal a black eye, Subi cares little but speaks passionately when she describes her boyfriends or reminisces about her professor's thunder thighs.
The trio spend the evening wining and whining and eventually, lament over their desultory state of existence from the bottom of their wine glasses. The film wraps up abruptly when they learn a tragic piece of news.
The problem with this play adaptation, is that it hasn't been adapted. To adapt means to mould, transform and blend into the format and acquire the recipient's form and language. This one plays out in real time and the characters seem like they are on stage, throwing their voices and themselves onto the audience in a manner that's a bit too overwhelming for celluloid.
Shabana Azmi is flawless when she sings the Tagore number but in the rest of her scenes, her character bounces about like she's just been introduced to valium. Aparna Sen, as the emotionally-coiled Oru, barely evokes much emotion. "I'm not a saaxcess. But I'm not a fail-lure either," is her character's self-assessment. About her performance here, it's somewhere between the two extremes. Lillete Dubey's Subi adds some colour to the otherwise drab proceedings, especially when she lobs at her drunken lover with everything she can get her hands on. But given her limited screen time, there's little she can do to elevate this film.
Read Also: Shabana Azmi turns singer with Tagore
With an enviable filmography, it is disappointing that veteran director Aparna Sen would be behind a film like this. While the play had the potential of being adapted into an entertaining, gripping and thought-provoking piece of cinema, what we see on the screen isn't a patch on Elkunchwar's writing.
With her eyes shut and hands swaying, a character in this film listens to Moonlight Sonata. "Beethoven is like a friend now," she mumbles. Later, she lists her friends which include Kalidas, Shakespeare, among others. If you happen to have imaginary friends too, take them along to watch this one. The real ones won't dare to anyway.