Some movies roil things up inside of us for the wrong reasons. Sonata, an Indian movie in English, was one such for me. Yet, I watched it to the end and here I am writing about it too. Let me say at the outset that I recommend it to all women everywhere of all ages.
When I saw the trailer, despite not having watched more than a handful of movies this year (focusing on writing projects), I knew I had to make time to watch the entire thing. The aspects that drew me in were as follows:
— based on a well-known one-act Indian play of the same name (which I have not seen but had heard/read about before the movie.)
— about the friendship between three older, single, professional women — a theme which is, let’s face it, under-explored in cinema/fiction the world over.
— stars three of the finest Indian actors of our times: Shabana Azmi, Aparna Sen, Lillette Dubey.
— directed by Aparna Sen, who is also one of the finest woman directors in Indian cinema.
— shot almost entirely in the English language, which is not a very common thing in Indian cinema. And, while I do not have any particular affinity for Indian movies in the English language, I was curious as to how that might change how the women expressed themselves.
The three main characters — Aruna the writer and academic scholar; Dolon the banking executive; and Subhadra the journalist — are well-rounded, distinct, and interesting with their specific internal conflicts and contradictions. Aruna is a reserved but maternal woman who does not care for physical intimacy. Dolon is a sensualist who enjoys good food, wine, clothes, perfumes, etc., and flits from emotion to emotion as distractedly as a child. And Subhadra is an IDGAF journalist who seems to go from one bad relationship to another but, as she says, “gives as good as she gets.”
Over the course of a single evening, the three women discuss many things from relationships to careers to loneliness to happiness to sexuality to death and more. That said, the movie is not some long, morose affair. There is a lot of joking, singing, dancing, and laughter as one might expect from people who have been close friends from their college days to their late-50s/early-60s. And the acting is stellar — flawless performances from Azmi, Sen, Dubey, despite what they had to work with (read on.)
This is one of those talky-talky movies because it is based on a play — so, not everyone’s cuppa. The dialogue is decent enough because it tries to go beyond mere exposition (though this does happen more often than I care) to give us characterization, atmosphere/mood, and information. But it is often rather stilted and not conversational English, sounding rather like that from badly-written “women’s fiction” (don’t you just hate that genre label?)
As women who have managed so much professional success on their own, they discuss their work briefly in the course of regular conversation. This is refreshing but I wish there had been more of it and that it had been handled better. After all, it is strongly implied throughout how they have made significant sacrifices for their accomplishments. I’m not suggesting there should have been bitterness or whining about those sacrifices but, if their work has taken so much priority in their lives, surely they would want to bring it up more specifically and as a matter of course. At one point, Dolon, the banking executive, proudly declares how she chooses not to bring work home and that strikes a false note because I cannot think of a single professional woman in the executive ranks who does not do this, no matter what part of the world she lives in — especially if she is single with no family commitments. Aruna goes back and forth from her laptop, trying to finish a chapter of her book-in-progress and even makes a couple of apt, timely references to her scholarship field of mythology and scriptures. Subhadra has an argumentative call with someone at her magazine/newspaper about the editing of one of her pieces and that escalates into something unexpected (trying to avoid spoilers.)
There are two specific plotlines related to gender reassignment and homosexuality that have been handled clumsily — and I believe this is due to the play/script rather than the directing or acting. With the former, the entire thread seems to have been added on rather loosely to provide the O Henry twist ending instead of adding anything tangible to the overall story. With the latter, it is embarrassing to watch a highly-charged but awkward exchange between Aruna and Dolon — two articulate and mature women — about lesbianism because neither of them actually even utters the word once. Why this coyness? Especially from Aruna the writer who has even written an entire award-winning story about it?
What irks me the most, however, is that, in the end, each woman’s loneliness is shown as being about the men, or lack thereof, in their lives. With Aruna, it is an old college sweetheart she chose to leave (avoiding spoilers again.) With Dolon, it is about only having loved the one man who was sort of off-limits to her. And, with Subhadra, it is about being attracted to the bad boys who do not have, it is implied, much respect for her (though, thank goodness, she does not seem to care that much about them either.) Clearly, this movie/play fails the Bechdel Test entirely.
Oh, and that twist ending is also bothersome because it feels too contrived and loosely-glued on. I like surprise endings but they must be both believable and inevitable. In this case, I was not convinced of either.
[Side-note: Similarly, I did not get the significance of the piece of music Aruna loves so much: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Sure, it is beautiful. But, when you include something as a significant detail like this piece of music, even showing the characters listening to it in silence for a few moments and having it recur as background score several times, the symbolism should be purposeful: why this piece of music and not another? how does it add to the main story themes? and so on.]
As a writer, when I watch movies or read books with jarring plotlines or characterization that does not ring true, I cannot help but imagine what I would have written instead. I wish this story had shown the women go deeper into a couple of themes rather than skim over so many of them. For example: exploring the happiness/self-fulfillment theme as a counter to the lonely-without-a-man theme. Another example: exploring how gender and sexuality are viewed in Indian society and among people of their social class.
One might say that the lonely-without-a-man theme is indicative of our current cultural reality. Or that couplehood is a lifelong aspiration for the majority. Both are accurate statements. But, when you are showing us culturally unconventional women who are confident, mature, intelligent and accomplished, surely we have a right to expect their conversations to be more true to their characters? I would have loved to see one of them embark on an entire career change (say, the banker going rogue) or grapple with a new hobby (maybe the writer/scholar takes up a new sport) or finally have the courage to face down a long-time inner demon (the journalist publishes an exposé about the men who have taken undue advantage of her.) In other words, a woman growing more into herself rather than continuing to reach externally for a man as some kind of validation. There was so much potential here, given the characters and the talented women portraying them.
Despite all that, I find that Sen has directed with the greatest care and, as I mentioned earlier, all three actors are so watchable that it is hard to look away from the screen for a single moment. Go watch it with your girlfriends, sisters, mothers, etc. Make sure you have plenty of cheese and wine for some good conversation afterward. If nothing else, movies like this one should trigger both personal and public discussions about the way older, single women live or want to live now.
PS The entire movie is on Youtube as well — see below. If you do watch it, let me know what you think in the comments below.