‘Sonata’ review: A play pretending to be a film

Midlife crisis: Despite excellent actors, the film remains tantalising  

When Shakespeare said, ‘All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players…’, the three protagonists in Aparna Sen’s Sonata took it a bit too seriously. Mouthing theatrical dialogues and addressing a series of existential questions, the three middle-aged women go about a seemingly casual evening as if they’re onstage, mulling about how their lives panned out.

Set in a time span of a few hours, Sonata examines the lives of three unmarried friends, professor Aruna Chaturvedi (Aparna Sen), banker Dolon Sen (Shabana Azmi) and journalist Subhadra Parekh (Lillite Dubey), through their conversations. Topics include relationships, career, loneliness, longing, domestic abuse, sex reassignment surgery, sexuality and unfulfilled dreams.

  • Director: Aparna Sen
  • Starring: Aparna Sen, Shabana Azmi, Lillete Dubey
  • Run time: 104 minutes

The premise is promising. The three actors, even more. But the film, unfortunately, remains tantalising. Based on a play written by renowned playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, the languid adaptation seems much like a live performance, bereft of any cinematic appeal whatsoever. The most adventurous the cinematography gets, is when a shot is taken from behind a glass shelf. The audio is out of sync at several points, and to make the set seem like a Mumbai apartment, the background resounds with kids playing, traffic noise and dogs barking; all this to indicate the passage of time.

Strangely, in this household, time passes as if the characters live on Venus. Their conversations are in real time but the sun sets faster than a sinking boat. The ‘minimalist’ plot is so platitudinous, that you start noticing these otherwise inconsequential technicalities.

Despite earnest performances, Azmi, Sen and Dubey are ultimately trapped in a conduit of dull characterisation. Azmi fully embodies a bubbly and feisty iconoclast but mouth-fags a cigarette like she’s held one for the first time. She utters pedantic dialogues like, “I’ve seen her grow slowly, imperceptibly”, making her even more caricature-ish. Sen plays a pedestrian professor rather well, but that’s hardly a compliment. Dubey enters the film almost midway, bringing in the much-needed chutzpah, and clearly standing out in the trio.

The film has ample scope to be intense and insightful. At one point, it addresses the topic of sex change when the protagonists discuss a common friend who opted for the surgery. It even explores sexual tension between Aruna and Dolon, who have been roommates for decades. But for two progressive, English speaking women, they never utter the word “lesbian” while confronting each other on the topic. Even the impudent Dolon, who otherwise chastises Aruna for being a prude, stays away from the L-word. It either reflects the ever-prevailing discomfort around homosexuality or the filmmaker’s myopic characterisation (the one department the film heavily rests on).

Ultimately, this play-in-the-guise-of-a-film remains on the surface. If I wanted to watch three people whine over wine, I would much rather join them in person than be trapped listening to them in a cinema hall.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 3:56:43 PM |

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