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Film-maker Aparna Sen’s latest film explores female friendships

Based on playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar’s English play, the story highlights the theme of lifelong female bonding

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Apr 20, 2017 18:28 IST
Aparna Sen,HT48Hours,SOnata
A still from Aparna Sen’s latest film, Sonata

In the ’80s, as a successful actor, Aparna Sen (now 71) was confidently venturing into uncharted territory. She wanted to direct a film on a short story she had written. Moreover, she wanted to make it in English. Back in the day, the genre of crossover cinema was alien to the Indian film industry. But Sen braved the odds to make the poignant 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) with Jennifer Kendal, Debashree Roy and Dhritiman Chatterjee. The iconic movie went on to win multiple National Awards, and earned Kendal a nomination for best actress at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA). It also cemented Sen’s caliber as a sensitive film-maker.

Three decades on, Sen has won nine National Awards and has made over 11 films, but she remains just as keen to experiment. This weekend will see the release of her fifth English film, Sonata, starring Shabana Azmi, Lillete Dubey and herself. Based on Mahesh Elkunchwar’s English play by the same name, the story revolves around three middle-aged women in urban India. “There’s a dearth of Indian stories delving into the space of female friendships,” admits Sen.

Meeting ground

Sonata marks the fifth time that Sen and Azmi have worked together (the duo’s previous films include Sati, 1989, 15 Park Avenue, 2005, and a telefilm called Picnic, 1989; the duo has also worked together in Mrinal Sen’s award-winning movie, Ek Din Achanak, 1989). They have also been close friends over the years. “When I called her this time, she didn’t even ask to hear the script. That is the level of trust we share. She knows I wouldn’t give her any role that would not be suitable,” she says.

However, this is the first time Dubey has collaborated with Sen. Apart from sharing mutual admiration for each other’s work, the two have another thing in common: they are both directors. And it’s safe to assume that two directors might have creative differences. But, Sen gives us a different story: “This is a discipline that we all directors have: when we act for someone else, we take off our director’s hat and just wear an actor’s cap.”

Read more: Meet the first-time director who raised Rs 20 lakh via crowd-funding

The company of women

Since it’s a 17-year-old play, Sen has taken a few liberties to update the script, add a few characters, change the ending and give the story a global context. While she is confident that the story will resonate with an urban audience that throngs multiplexes, she is also aware of the film’s limited appeal and, not surprisingly, has no qualms about it. “Nowadays, you cannot make a pan-Indian film unless it is for the lowest common denominator. That is what they do in mainstream cinema. But my films have always been niche; they are made on a small budget to recover costs, and are made for multiplexes,” says Sen.

Read more: Take two: Actor Rahul Bose on Poorna, his second directorial effort in 16 years

Marketing for such small films, she says, is crucial in order to get people into the theatre. “I started making films in the ’80s. It’s 2017, and I am still making films. It makes me believe that I have a dedicated audience who come to watch my films. Still, it’s vital to make the audience aware of the film,” says Sen.

After its theatrical release, Sen is certain that the film will find a place on the online platforms. She is all praise for Video on Demand (VOD) services, which help art-house cinema go the distance. “It’s essential that these platforms thrive because there are many viewers across India who are interested in such cinema. But they won’t make the effort to watch it in a theatre if it’s not near them,” she says.

WATCH OUT: Aparna Sen’s Sonata is in theatres now.

First Published: Apr 20, 2017 00:00 IST