Sen and Sensibility
Trans World Features/IBNS | 27 Mar 2017
Sen and Sensibility
Aparna Sen’s new film Sonata, will be releasing any time now. It is adapted from an English play by noted Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar in 2000 whose plays and writings have been made into films. Sonata makes a strong point about female bonding between and among women where language, culture, education and region do not count. Shoma A. Chatterji gives a ring-side view into her work

Call it sisterhood or call it female bonding, Aparna Sen, the director, has always made female bonding a strong point in many of her directorial films. “I never intend to convey any message through my film. If members of my audience happen to read a message, it is their call and I did not put it there,” she says. 

Sonata spells out a story where sisterhood is the subject, the narrative and the message all blended to make a single film. Female characters have bonded in some of her directorial films from Parama through Paromitar Ek Din to 15, Park Avenue, The Japanese Wife and Goynar Baksho in which a real young girl becomes close friends with a female ghost who died long ago. 
15, Park Avenue throws up a series of female bonding within the same family – the strange bonding between the two sisters polarised in terms of age, mindset, education and occupation, the two daughters and their ageing mother whose forehead is forever creased with worry lines for her younger daughter and for the possessive attitude of her older one, and so on.

Paromitar Ek Din tackles the friendship between a mother-in-law and her younger daughter-in-law though they are poles apart in background, education and upbringing. “The film is about the relationship between two women, Sanaka and Paromita. This mother-in-law-daughter-in-law pair find a strange bonding that ties them together though relations between Paromita and her husband are extremely strained.  What happens to this bonding when Paromita’s marriage to Sanaka’s son breaks up? That forms the resolution - if you can call it that - of this film” says Sen.

Parama glides over female friendship but makes a strong statement even with brief touches and establishes the link with the questions the film raises about the sexist bias we attach to morality with different rules for men and women. It also challenges masochistic beliefs like a divorced woman is always one with questionable morals, or, that a seemingly happy marriage may be  a façade that cracks under pressure, each represented by two close friends, Sheela, portrayed by Sen herself and Parama, played by Raakhee.

Sheila is not a conventionally 'negative' influence who imposes on Parama the desire to walk out of her home. She does much more than that, though. She invests Parama with the urge to make her own decision and to owe responsibility towards the decision : be it in her clandestine correspondence with Rahul, or her decision to take a job. Sheila is also the director's own 'voice' intruding into the narrative to offer a secondary support structure to Parama at critical moments in her life.

 Sonata deals with different shades of female friendship between and among three elderly women who belong to different professions, different states in India and live by different ideologies. They live and work in Mumbai and stay together in the same flat though one of them keeps flitting in and out depending on the fluctuations of her relationship with her abusive male partner. 
Says Aparna, who plays one of the three women, “The premise of Sonata is the midlife crisis of three unmarried friends, who are very unlike one another. This is an exploration of the various aspects of femininity, various aspects of sexuality. Marriage, not being married, is being in love, being out of love, having children, not having children…. I had liked the play when Sohag (Sen) did it on stage.” There are hardly any male characters in the film. The four young producers, all men are not worried.  Sonata has been produced by Dipankar ‘Jojo’ Chaki, a gifted sound designer, Vinod Lahoti, Anjan Ghosal and Aloke Vohra, under HK Studios Production.

The three women are – Dolon, a banker and a Bengali portrayed by Shabana Azmi, Aruna, a Brahmin from UP who teaches Sanskrit and is also an Indologist writing a book, enacted by Sen and Subhadra, a Maharashtrian which Lilette Dubey has performed. They live in Mumbai. Subhadra lives with her boyfriend who is extremely abusive and she rushes to her friends when it becomes too much. Shabana expressed her wish to portray the Bengali woman and even sang a couple of Tagore songs herself. The film is ready for release in mid-April. 
“I prefer not to act in the films I direct but this time, the producers insisted that I should. Besides, the character fitted me as we three are around the same age-group and the characters are into middle-age too so I had to agree,” adds Sen.

 It is not always hunky dory among them. Dolon is bubbly, energetic and an extrovert. Aruna is an introvert who talks very little, does not express her emotions and hates touching and being touched. Subhadra is beautiful, looks after herself well but is confused about her life and her decisions. These oppositions create internal tensions as they are so different. “The cosmopolitan character of Mumbai and its globalised society adds to their tensions and their making up too. Another friend, played by Sohag Sen, a noted theatre director of Kolkata, drops in with her boyfriend from Pune and something cathartic happens to turn the change the entire drama of this seemingly harmonious story,” adds Sen.

 Women are more traditionally socialised in the skills of interaction than men and can thus establish links with people more easily. Lillian B.Rubin in Just Friends, (New York : Harper & Row,1985), finds that the difference in men and women's potential for friendship originates in their early childhood experience of the traditional nuclear family, in which the mother is the primary caregiver. It is within this context that "children develop a sense of self and gender identity."  For the young girl, it is difficult to establish borders between Self and Other because of her likeness to the primary role model, her mother. Hence, in adult life, she tends not to create barriers against other people.

 Historian Carol Smith-Rosenberg has studied relations between women in earlier eras, and feminists in all fields have stressed the need for support, for 'sisterhood.'[i]This has legitimised female friendship as a crucial relationship in a woman's life. Sheela's and Parama's friendship stands testimony to this belief. And so do the friendships between and among women in 15, Park Avenue, Paromitar Ek Din and Goynar Baksho. What will Sonata offer us? Let us wait and watch….