While male friendship got its celluloid outing with films such as Dil Chahta Hai and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, female bonding has remained largely off screen. But Aparna Sen’s Sonata, which releases on April 21, is about to change that. The film, starring Shabana Azmi, Lillete Dubey and Sen, is the story of three successful single women in their 50s, their friendship and their lives. On a recent visit to Delhi, the three sat with us at Delhi’s Olive Bar and Kitchen and spoke about the play that inspired the film, patriarchy in film industry and the change that’s setting in.
Sonata is inspired by the eponymous one-act play by Mahesh Elkunchwar. Tell us more about it.
Sen: I had seen this play and what struck me was not just the portrayal of female bonding but how it treated women who have passed a certain age. What drew me to it was its exploration of the feminine. Here we have these three successful women who are defined by their work, who have had romantic relationships but have never been married and don’t have children. One is a successful banker (Azmi), the other is a journalist (Dubey) and I play a Sanskrit professor.
Apart from having Aparna Sen as director, what drew the two of you (Azmi and Dubey) to the film?
Azmi: I have a standing deal with Aparna that I have to be part of every film that she does. Even if I am just a tree in it, I am more than happy. Jokes apart, Aparna is the only director I know who consciously brings to life characters that are otherwise sidelined from the mainstream narrative. They might have a mental or physical problem, but then she will give them a beautiful voice, so they are not reduced to be defined by their disability. Aparna has expanded my vision and worldview as an actor and a human being. And here I am, playing a banker, who is single, childless, drinks wine and hums Rabindra sangeet. For me, Sonata was also cementing the idea of how the concept of family has evolved. It’s no longer defined with blood relations alone. The film is redefining the idea of a traditional family.
Dubey: I had been waiting for Aparna to call me ever since I started doing films — it took just 15-16 years. As for Sonata, the kind of female bonding this film showcases, has never been done before. And though the play is written by a man, it’s not a male gaze. This film presents an alternate history of sorts, what would have happened if you had taken the road less travelled.
All of you come from very strong theatre backgrounds. Did that help in the making of this film?
Sen: We have shot the film like a play, in one location with three characters. We had extensive script readings. I also got Sohag Sen on board as an acting coach. I had seen him in Sonata, the play. We shot it sequence by sequence, not like other films where you do one bit here and the other somewhere else. I was working on a very tight budget, so this helped in managing the costs.
Even after receiving both critical acclaim and commercial success, you still face budget issues?
Sen: This is a cross I have to bear. Time and again Shabana says and now Lillete has also joined the conversation, that I should get bigger budgets. Do I wish I had bigger budgets? Yes, of course. I deserve big budgets. But I don’t crib about it anymore. I have made my peace with it.
Dubey: It’s also the responsibility of the audience to see such films. If a film like Sonata does well, imagine the way it will embolden other filmmakers.
In our films, we rarely see a lead cast of women who are in their 50s. Do you think Sonata will help break certain stereotypes about ageism in Hindi films?
Sen: I am not an ageist, I don’t believe in it. But we all have lived it and we have acted it.
Azmi: Norms are changing and what we are undergoing as a society, some of it translates onto the screen. There were times when a heroine hit 30 and her life and career were over because all she had been doing those days was wearing yellow chiffon saris and dancing. Now, even though it’s still a long way from where it needs to be, we can see a trickle of change. The boundaries have been pushed. We get an English Vinglish. But even men suffer from the ageist syndrome. We need to give credit to Amitabh Bachchan — he has really stretched and increased the shelf-life of actors.
Dubey: Female actors came with baggage — they were superstars and they didn’t want to do peripheral roles. We can’t deny that this is a male-dominated industry. A male star carries the film and the character roles are also written keeping that in mind. It’s not like it is with Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep and their ilk. Television ideally should have been the space that older actors could have appropriated but sadly that didn’t happen. But things are changing with webseries etc.
One sees a lot laughter, wine and soulful music in the trailer of the film. We imagine it was the same on the sets.
Sen: Three minutes into a reading session and they would be chattering. Shabana — she can be quite a liability, but I can handle her now. All would be fine, and 30 seconds before the shot she will say, ‘Rina these lines, can we do them differently’? And I would be like, but you were okay with them in the readings and rehearsals. But mind you, she has lied to me to be in my films. For 15 Park Avenue, she said she could drive and she couldn’t.
Azmi: I could drive, but not along the curve like they wanted me to. For this film, she made me diet. I was eating soups and salads and everyone would be eating around me, Lilette would be gorging on this amazing fish and in the evening the muri would appear. Imagine a director who was so obsessed with getting her muri right!
Dubey: We were either eating or laughing. But the wine – it was all fake. Except once, when we had the real deal.