“Sonata”… Shabana Azmi has loads of fun in a stilted, yet thought-provoking drama

Posted on April 26, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

Shabana Azmi has been our go-to “serious actress” for so long that it’s easy to forget she was once cavorting around in Manmohan Desai movies and cat-fighting with Aruna Irani in Fakira. Aparna Sen’s Sonata, based on the Mahesh Elkunchwar play, rediscovers Azmi in that mode – she’s a delight as Dolon Sen, a singleton who shares a roof with Aruna Chaturvedi (Aparna Sen). They share a long history as friends (though there are hints that Aruna may have wanted more) and can recite Emily Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for death in unison, but in other ways, they are opposites. Dolon likes wine, perfumes, ogling at undie-clad men on television. (“Who gets to bed them?” she wonders.) Aruna likes to listen to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. And knit.

The film is largely in English, which results in some wince-inducing lines, like this one about Aruna’s knitting-as-therapy: “Your mind becomes clear, without a single cloud.” But maybe she does speak that way, given her profession. As Sonata opens, she’s consulting a Dictionary of Indology in order to complete a book of sutras. You can see why Dolon needs all that wine. A simple question like “Have I put on weight” results in this answer from Aruna: “Do you ever tell a tiger it has foul breath?”

They sound a little like the bickering odd-couple – one needy and taunting, one patient and distant – from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, especially as they keep picking on scabs and doling out revelations over the long evening the events are set in. In other ways, I was reminded of Persona. As in Bergman’s extremely interior drama (here too, the camera rarely leaves the apartment, and a framing of Dolon/Aruna appears an homage), there’s an element of vampirism: Did Aruna draw on Dolon’s life for her short story?

It’s been a while since a film was so woman-centric, and so mournfully so. For despite the laughs – many of them from a third friend, a journalist named Subhadra (Lillete Dubey infuses the part with her typical tang) – the undercurrent of sadness, of a life that slipped away, is unmistakeable. (Refer, again, to the title of that Dickinson poem.) They are children of the feminist revolution, they are affluent, sophisticated – and yet, the film seems to suggest that having a man around may not have been such a bad thing.

For everyone is defined, at least a little, by a relationship. Aruna let go of a man, something that still rankles in that did-I-do-the-right-thing? way. Dolon, too, let an opportunity for a relationship pass by. Subhadra, who claims she needs “the smell of a man,” is now with a garage mechanic who beats her and then apologises by standing outside Aruna’s apartment and baying for her. A Streetcar Named Desire springs to mind, and it may not be an accident that “Subhadra” and “Stella” roll off the tongue in a similar fashion.

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And what about the neighbour that Dolon spies on? The woman is a pitiable creature of routine, and she’s single too. “She looks so alone,” Dolon sighs. There are fascinating contradictions at work here. On the one hand, Sonata celebrates the fact that women can be high-fiving buddies for life, without being defined as someone’s mother or wife. (None of them have children, a point rather clunkily hit home by the domestic help, who awaits the birth of a grandchild.) And yet, there’s such anguish here, and at least part of it seems to have to do with choices made around the “man-woman thing” Subhadra talks about.

Sonata is one of those movies that offers a lot to think about, but it isn’t very satisfying to sit through. It has that stilted filmed-play quality, and the climax, in which a real-life tragedy intrudes into the Aruna/Dolon cocoon, is awkwardly shoehorned in – it has to do with a fourth friend, who brings with her a revelation of her own. Aruna’s reaction to this friend’s choices cast her in a particularly poor light, but it also makes her human. Not everyone can be “cool” all the time.

But the film is a welcome oddity, an exploration of friendship, sexuality, loneliness, age and Shabana Azmi’s lamentably overlooked talent for comedy. At one point, Dolon, after expressing dissatisfaction with the weight around her mid-section, slips into a too-tight dress and shocks the prudish Aruna – the dress shocked me too, but for a different reason. It’s one thing to see Biju Menon flaunt his paunch without a care in the world while diving into a pond in Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu, which also released last week. He’s a forty-something man. It’s a Malayalam movie – naturalism is prized there. But a sixty-something Mumbai actress? I wanted to stand up and applaud. Better yet, the scene doesn’t make the point I’m making. It isn’t about a revolution. It’s just Shabana Azmi having a lot of fun.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi