I Dream in Both Bengali & English: Aparna Sen

Aparna Sen and Shabana Azmi have been friends for 30 years. In Aparna’s new film Sonata, they play furiously fastened friends who have lived together as flatmates in Mumbai for 20 years.

Aparna Sen, Actor-Filmmaker, Sonata Shabana and I understand each other instinctively. We don’t even have to speak on the sets. I can convey what I want without words to her, that’s how close we are.

Shabana effusive and generous as always, says she is grateful to Aparna for giving her the best role in the film.

Aparna who plays one of the lead roles in Sonata, laughs at Shabana’s gratitude.

I could’ve never played her part of Dolon Sen, although Dolon is Bengali like me. She is outgoing, filled with joie de vivre, unafraid and uninhibited. I can’t sing, and Dolon can! Shabana has sung the Rabindra Sangeet so beautifully.

But surely that’s a technicality that could easily have been dealt with through playback singing? Aparna says an emphatic ‘no’ to that. “No, no, playback singing is a complete no-no for international audiences. They look at the tradition of playback singing in Indian cinema with very sceptical eyes. So no to playback singing.”

And a big ‘yes’ to female bonding in Sonata.

After Arshinagar in Bengali, I wanted to make a much less expensive film in English, at least that’s what the producers asked me to do. I wanted to make a film with less characters. I had seen Mahesh Eklunchwar’s play long ago and it had stayed with me. Actually, for a very long time I wanted to do a chamber piece, a play on film set in one location unfolding within a few hours. I wanted to do Badal Sircar’s Sari Raat. But due to political reasons it became impossible. That’s when I remembered Sonata. I decided to do this story of three women of a certain age, their uncertainties, laughter, worries and togetherness.

A still from the film. (Photo courtesy: Vinayak Pictures)

Shabana and Lilette Dubey were the natural choices for the two other roles. For the third protagonist’s part, Aparna cast herself. This is the fourth time Aparna is directing herself. And she looks ravishingly beautiful.

“Thank you. I never know how to react to compliments. But tell me, was it just my looks or have I acted well also in Sonata?” asks the veteran actress, who made her debut in front of the camera at age 12 in Satyajit Ray’s Samapti, and never looked back.

In recent times Aparna Sen has been busier directing films rather than acting in them. She directed three back-to-back Bengali films in the last four years including last year’s Romeo & Juliet adaptation Arshinagar, which she says she enjoyed (though the audience didn’t).

“It was fun doing a full feature in song form. There of course we had to have playback singing because there were so many actors and not all of them could sing.”

Aparna Sen directing Jennifer Kendal and Dhritiman Chatterjee on the sets of 36 Chowringhee Lane. (Photo courtesy: Facebook/ mitasaha)

From the beginning of her directorial career, Aparna has been seesawing between English and Bengali films. Some of her most relevant films like her debut in 36 Chowringhee Lane have been in English.

If you ask which language I am more comfortable making films in, I’d have to say,both. I sleep and dream in English and Bengali.

She is anxious about Sonata.

It’s set in one place during one evening. I was completely enchanted by how well the male gaze of the playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar fell on the woman characters. He seems to understand the woman’s subconscious so well. I had tremendous fun shooting with Shabana and Lilette.

Aparna made changes in the original play.

While I wanted to retain the flavour of the play on celluloid, I also wanted to give the dramatic tension of socio-political relevance. I’ve introduced two new characters which were not there in the original (a transgender woman and her foreigner boyfriend).

Aparna ends the film with a reference to 26/11 terror attack on the Taj hotel. “It gives the film a political context. It connects the characters to a world outside their own private world.”

The film ends with Shabana and Aparna staring wide-eyed at images on television from the 26/11 devastation.

“All their mutual differences are forgotten when given the larger issue. They become one during the time of this national crisis,” says Aparna as she readies for the premiere of Sonata in Mumbai. Her daughter Konkona Sen and grandson have come visiting. For now, she is just another happy mother and grandmother.

Albeit a yummy mummy and a gorgeous grandmother.