‘Sonata’ Review: A Rare Take on Bad Feminists and Girl Bonding

Once again, Aparna Sen turns a never-done-before idea into cinematic genius, this time with her long time friend Shabana Azmi in Sonata. Films about girl bonding, especially based on middle-aged, single characters, are a rarity in our country. But Sen adds an element of surprise too. I went in expecting to see a deep feminist thought, but what I found was something more, something very very real.

“What awful creatures we are – no commitment, no aim, no ideology, we are not even feminists!”

For once, it was relieving to hear women say that, in a time where the definition of feminism is changing everyday, presuming a loaded responsibility from each of us.

Sonata explores the psyche of three unmarried, middle-aged college pals, Aruna Chaturvedi (Aparna Sen), Dolon Sen (Shabana Azmi) and Subhadra Parekh (Lilette Dubey). What unfolds between them in the confines of their living room, is both tragic and liberating at the same time. It’s anything but static. Conversations begin, fall off the edge and playfully prop right back into context, making the screenplay extremely real.

Sonata, which is a chamber piece, drags a bit through its narrative, with several pauses and unfinished dialogues, but that leaves scope for afterthoughts and twists, where Sen doesn’t disappoint.

The film is a conversation about the uncertainties of life, trust, betrayal, lust and longing, set in a cosmopolitan landscape. It’s actually a rare example of the female gaze at play, and very effectively at that. As much as the protagonists have protected and supported each other over the last 25 years of camaraderie, they’ve also been the ones to cause the most damage. They discover this truth about their relationship, just when we do.

Lilette Dubey, Aparna Sen and Shabana Azmi, the three musketeers of Sonata. (Photo courtesy: YouTube/H K Studios)

Sonata takes feminism and makes it feminine, and quite effortlessly so. The beauty of the film lies in the fact that not only are its characters fiercely independent as women, but they’re realistically vulnerable too.

While everyone in the world, from the maid’s pregnant daughter, to their lonely neighbour and their transgender friend, who has found a partner after undergoing sexual reassignment surgeries, is a brutal reminder of what one might perceive as ‘incomplete’ lives, but to them, it’s only time gone by, without any regrets.

The performances are bang on. Shabana sings like a dream as Dolon. It’s hard to imagine any other actors do justice to this adaptation of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play. The 30 year long offscreen friendship between Aparna Sen and Shabana Azmi is palpable to be honest. Truly, they get each other even without speaking a word. The film doesn’t lack a political context either. Their personal drama ends with the unexpected shock of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.

Shabana Azmi and Aparna Sen’s 30 year long offscreen friendship makes their onscreen bond even more relatable. (Photo courtesy: YouTube/H K Studios)

Sonata is full of surprises too. Shabana Azmi plays a Bengali banker, while Aparna Sen chooses to essay the role of a north Indian Sanskrit professor. A role reversal of sorts it seems. Lilette Dubey has a short but significant part to play as the third musketeer. Though she’s a renowned journalist in the story, her joys and sorrows are tied to a man, who beats her up. Interestingly, she doesn’t walk out, but boasts about the fact that she didn’t take it lying down. Her friends are concerned but don’t order her around, or dictate that she won’t go back to him.

This Aparna Sen directorial is a rare story of womanhood and friendship, a gem that you must watch with your besties, and a whole lot of abandon.