Aparna Sen is acknowledged as one of the finest directors Indian cinema has produced. But curiously, her latest film, Sonata, vanished without a trace after a one-week run in a couple of theatres in Kolkata. In an exclusive interview with Shoma A. Chatterji, she talks about why she decided to turn Mahesh Elkunchwar’s one-act play in English into a 100-minute film.
Sonata is about three middle-aged women who are independent and have made their own choices in life. They are different in terms of ethnicity, profession, education and ideology. Yet, they find a strange bonding and hidden layers of their relationship are revealed as the film unfolds. Aparna was inspired to make the film after she watched the play directed by her close friend Sohag Sen, a theatre personality who runs her own group.
As a director who has always worked in films and as an actress who has worked on stage and in films, what prompted you to turn a single-set chamber drama into a full-length feature film?
Some of the directors I have admired the most, such as Ingmar Bergman and Roman Polanski, have directed beautiful chamber pieces. This is a genre where the narrative progresses through continuing conversation amongst the characters, and the line between stage and cinema is deliberately blurred. One realises that cinema and theatre do not have to be mutually exclusive. Performance is king here, and yet you can use the close-up (which is the essential stuff of cinema) to great effect.
Shabana Azmi, Lillete Dubey and Aparna Sen in a scene from the film, Sonata.
Was it a challenge?
It is certainly a challenge – for the cinematographer who has to light up the set in a way that lends itself to continuous viewing for 90 to 100 minutes at a stretch; it is a challenge for the performers who have to be able to hold their audience in thrall just as on stage; finally, it is a challenge for the director who has to choreograph the entire film in a way that will not appear static. I was happy to take up that challenge.
But you have done this before?
I have done this before with my film Saari Raat based on Badal Sarkar’s play Saara Rattir (Bengali). That film too had one space and three characters and took place in the course of a single night. My DOP (director of Photography), my editor, my production designer and I all took the challenge of this project with a lot of relish. It worked out rather well, I have to say, and I wanted to repeat the exercise. It is also a great way of making a small budget film because it is confined to one location and with very few characters. I feel it is something that we independent (and regional) filmmakers can look into trying from time to time.
As a director who has made several outdoor-rooted films like Mr & Mrs Iyer, 15 Park Avenue, and Arshinagar, what made you explore the limited physical space of a living room as the main backdrop and keep away from the outside world?
I am a filmmaker who likes to try different approaches in cinema. In Arshinagar, you will remember, I tried to combine theatre and cinema, the two sister disciplines. I also veered away from everyday reality in many of my films – Yugant, 15 Park Avenue, Arshinagar to name a few. I also like to try different genres. I might for instance, try an epistolary style sometime, merging cinema and literature. I don’t like to be confined to a box.
How difficult or how easy is it to direct veterans like Shabana and Lillete? Please elaborate.
It is a joy and also a relief not to have to direct minutely as in the case of newcomers. Shabana and Lillete are both very competent and sensitive actors who add their own dimensions to a character. It is only if I feel that they are going off track that I gently nudge them back. Otherwise I leave them alone. I do the same with Konkona.
It is a shame to confine good actors to your way of thinking when they are perfectly capable of giving their own interpretation to a given text and enriching it.
The characters are ethnically placed against the grain. Was this done by design or was it just a coincidence and if it was by design, why?
Well, the casting of Lillete was a foregone conclusion. Mahesh Elkunchwar, the playwright, wanted her as Subhadra (who he insisted was his ‘darling’ by the way!). Sohag Sen, our casting director and acting coach, wanted Lillete. I too, could see only Lillete in that role. In fact, we would have been in a fix had Lillete declined to play the role since all of us had set our hearts on her. I chose Shabana ‘against the grain’ as you put it, because she sings beautifully. I had not wanted playback in the film because my films are seen internationally. To foreign audiences, playback singing carries an association of mainstream cinema
Now that you have watched the film with an audience, what is your viewer-cum-director response to your film?
I can only see faults in a film that I have finished making. It is torture for me to watch it with an audience. Also, I am strangely influenced by audience reactions. If I see the audience responding in the right way, I feel that I have possibly made a good film. Otherwise, I am convinced that the film is a disaster. So I don’t really trust my own reactions to my films.
(The writer is a senior journalist and film historian based in Kolkata. She has won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema twice, the Bengal Film Journalists Association Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Laadly-UNFPA.)
July – September 2017