Aparna Sen’s English language movie Sonata is adapted from a Mahesh Elkunchwar play – of this there is never any doubt.
The story unfolds entirely within the living room of a well-appointed apartment somewhere in Mumbai. There are other rooms but no other wonders – the characters stick doggedly to that one space and wander away from or towards the largely static camera. The dialogue has a whiff of staginess in many places, and the plot hangs on the big reveal that is the goal of many one-act plays. When it comes, it slides by, to be overtaken by another reveal (an interpolation by Sen) that keen-eared viewers will have guessed already.
The close-up, that wonderful and uniquely cinematic device, isn’t used to its full potential except in a frame that references Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Like the 1966 masterpiece, Sonata is mostly a two-hander between Sen and Azmi, whom Sen has previously directed in Sati, Picnic and 15 Park Avenue. Sen is prissy professor Aruna, who has been sharing an apartment with her old friend and corporate hotshot Dolon (Azmi) for several years. For dramatic purposes, the two women do not behave as though they have been inhabiting the same domestic space for a very long time. They continue to surprise each other, and seem to harbour enough secrets to last the length of the 103-minute movie.
An old friend, who was once a man before undergoing sex reassignment surgery, is to visit, as is free-spirited journalist Subhadra (Lillete Dubey). A dinner menu is discussed, but it never gets made. Who needs food when there is rambling conversation and wine, which Dolon quaffs like water?
Until Subhadra shows up with a bruised cheek, Aruna and Dolon alternately spar and chat over the wisdom of choices past and present. The comfort between the two actresses is enhanced by Azmi’s fabulously loose-limbed performance. A happy-go-lucky type who lives for food and perfume, Dolon is a welcome counterpoint to Aruna’s austerity. She gently swats away Aruna’s remonstrations and heads for a refill whenever the professor gets too earnest. Shabana Azmi hasn’t had this much fun in years.
Might there be more to their relationship than friendship? This is one elephant in the room that stays hidden in plain sight. The play is about middle-aged women who have enjoyed the fruits of the feminist movement but are now at that point in their lives where their choices have caught up with them. Sen spares her characters the quality of astringency or the curse of corrosiveness. In the warm glow of the apartment, only wry observations and feeble jokes are permitted. Subhadra’s abuse gets the velvet glove treatment, and as events unfold beyond the apartment, Aruna and Dolon learn that the political is sometimes larger than the personal. It isn’t, actually, and it is in the climax that Sonata strikes its most jarring note.