Unfolding over one evening in a Mumbai apartment, much of the conversation and movement in Aparna Sen’s Sonata revolves around two bantering and bickering flatmates. Dolon Sen (Shabana Azmi), a banker, and Aruna Chaturvedi (Aparna Sen), a professor, are old college friends and flatmates. Unmarried and childless, they have the ease and boredom of a couple too comfortable with each other. Their evening is spent chiding each other and voyeuristically spying on another seemingly single and lonely woman in the opposite building; they also await the arrival of two other college pals.
A story (based on a play by Mahesh Elkunchwar) that explores notions of middle-aged women breaking stereotypes, making choices and remaining close through the years is a playground for nuance and poignancy. Sadly, the theatricality of the piece has not transitioned smoothly to screen. The textbook dialogues are unnatural and the thoughts that peter off do so quite deliberately. You can almost see the ellipsis typed in at the end of the line.
The confined setting seems limiting too. The women flutter around their apartment with an irritating restlessness. Aruna either taps away at her laptop, or shuffles to the sofa and channel-surfs. Then, within minutes, she tires of that activity, and starts knitting, but when she is teased by Dolon, she returns to her desk and the keyboard. At the same time, Dolon refills her wine glass and glides around the apartment chattering away and getting progressively inebriated. Shabana Azmi conveys that intoxication with ease (watch her as she lies sprawled on the sofa, struggling to maintain her balance), bringing a lightness to an atmosphere otherwise heavy with frustration and things unsaid. But given how talky this film is, rest assured no secrets shall remain unspoken. Dolon is a counter to Aruna’s stiff prude, who decides to have her first sip of wine that night.
Lilette Dubey plays another college bestie, Subhadra Parekh, a feisty journalist in an abusive relationship. Dubey injects the scene with breezy energy. The chatter between the trio is the most engaging part of the film; they talk about all things and nothing—like old friends do. A couple of supporting characters make an appearance: a domestic worker who makes a jibe about these ladies not understanding maternal responsibility; a college friend who has undergone sex reassignment surgery and found companionship in her twilight years.
Listen closely and you will note that this day is no ordinary day—it’s 26 November. It takes just a moment to convey the fragility of life and remind us of fleeting happiness. Despite the stilted dialogue, you’ll want to take away the glimpse you get into the minds of these women who have lived their lives without compromise and bear—or learn to bear—their bruises without apology.