Ways of Seeing: Sonata and the Female Gaze

Adrija Guha 

Assistant Professor of English, JIS College of Engineering, Kalyani, Nadia, West Bengal.

Based on Mahesh Eklunchwar's play by the same name, Sonata,  Aparna Sen’s film, brings to screen what Indian Cinema generally shies away from acknowledging - the psyche of old unmarried well-established women. Aruna Chaturvedi, an award winning author and a  linguistic professor, Dolon Sen, a banker, and Subhadra, a journalist made a choice of not settling down years back but till date, they don’t seem unsettled. They are rather more at peace with their own feelings, fears and discomfort. However their conversations often ignite discussions soaked in nostalgia of the familiar and the longing for unknown. Beautiful yet intriguing, the film discusses happiness. “Are you happy” is an existential question and never has an existential question been answered, says Subhadra and the relatability is hauntingly accurate. In the same scene, the three talk feminism, “What awful creatures we are – no commitment, no aim, no ideology, we’re not even feminists,” and give words to women sitting on the other side of the screen evoking our deepest and darkest fears. In my paper I want to discuss the film and talk about the female gaze, that of the characters and of the director herself.

Keywords: Female gaze, feminism, female bonding

Ways of Seeing: Sonata and the Female Gaze

A plush apartment in Mumbai. A woman sitting in front of a laptop and doing some work. Aruna Chaturvedi. A Professor of Linguistics and a writer. Another woman, a maid, cleaning utensils in the kitchen. Another woman enters. Dolon Sen. A banker. The maid says that she will not be able to come to work the next day as her pregnant daughter will come to her house. Aruna does not say anything. Dolon asks the maid to come as her daughter is just pregnant and not sick. The maid replies that she will be unable to come even if it means that she might lose her job. Then she comments on how ‘these’ women will never understand the importance of the situation as they have not married, neither do they have children. In short they do not know anything about the family life. Soon after, another woman (once a man) is introduced to us. Mira, a film director, who has undergone a sex reassignment surgery and is about to make a documentary on her own life. Later on, their friend Subhadra Parekh, a journalist who "lives life to the fullest", drops in after her lover beats her up.

Ten minutes into the film and yet we do not come across any male character. In fact there has not been any male character throughout the film, except in a few references (Peter, Mira’s boyfriend, Sangram, Subi’s husband and Avinash, Aruna’s ex). Immediately the film strikes a chord. Here we have women who have lived their lives on their own terms. They are successful in terms of their career. The apartment is a proof of their social status for which they are not dependent on any man. The voice of the maid acts like the voice of the society, the outer world (as against their inner world, the cocooned apartment), which has always judged women on the basis of their family life. As said by one of the characters (Mira), these women have fought against “the social stigma”, and have fought for identity. Then, what exactly does the film tries to convey? A review of the film notes: “Mouthing theatrical dialogues and addressing a series of existential questions, the three middle-aged women go about a seemingly casual evening as if they’re onstage, mulling about how their lives panned out” (Rosario).

However the film is much more than that. Taking a cue from John Berger’s enormously influential book Ways of Seeing, where he has asserted that the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe (Waugh 509), I want to argue in my paper how the film Sonata deals with the ways in which things can be seen. The film offers a number of possible pleasures. There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure. Every now and then we find Dolon looking through the window of their apartment at another seemingly single and lonely woman in the opposite building. At one particular scene we find Dolon predicting the actions of this woman and, interestingly, the woman does the same things. At one point she says, “… now she will install herself in front of that PC and not move her ass till midnight” (Sonata 22:20-27); she turns around and finds Aruna installing herself in front of her PC, saying that though she does not like it, she has to complete her chapter before their friends arrive. The result is a total subversion of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window (there is a reference to this film even) and thereby, of the male gaze. Sen’s film has a female viewer and the gaze is not limited to the voyeuristic gaze. (Though, quite interestingly, Aruna calls Dolon a “voyeur”.) What Dolon identifies in this other woman is routine, boredom, friendlessness and loneliness. This runs parallel to her own realisation that “ we are all in boxes; you, me, that woman in the window …” (Sonata 21:03-12). Unlike in Rear Window, where the viewer enjoys what he sees, Dolon here does not take pleasure in what she sees. She can identify herself with the woman and thus she even tries to help her out in her own way: “I… waved at her from the window and smiled. She slammed the windows shut” (Sonata 28:28-32). Later in the film she once says, “She must be terribly friendless… she looks so alone. … I wonder how she lives all alone like that. … We’ve been here now what 20 years, I’ve seen her grow old, slowly, imperceptibly” (Sonata 23:43-24:28). Then she adds, “I want to see that woman once, all dressed up, wearing make-up, and an expensive dress, smiling, getting ready to go for a party. Surely this can’t be all that there’s to her life!”(Sonata 33:12-33:30). In this particular scene Dolon seems to be in the same position as the cinema audience; she is forced to see this woman as a spectator, just like us who can only see these women or rather this film as spectators. On the basis of what Dolon sees, she concludes about the situation of that woman just like us who, while watching this film, may think that this film is nothing but another movie about the loneliness of unmarried and successful women. Isn’t this how middle-aged, unmarried women are seen by the society? Successful but lonely? We do remember Kate Chopin’s famous short story, Regret, where the fiftyish unmarried woman realizes how empty and lonely her life is without a family after she takes care of her neighbour’s children for a brief period of time. Dolon and Aruna’s friendship negates this typical mind-set. At the same time they also negate the concept that women do not like other women or can never think good about other women. They stand for sisterhood.

Dolon comes across as a fun-loving, bubbly and feisty character as opposed to the serious Aruna. Aruna, the linguistic scholar, won’t even stand foul language; she’s comfortable living by the social code of a time whose scriptures she deciphers. While she’s in her prudish cocoon, her long-time friend and roommate Dolon is the butterfly that Aruna never quite morphed into. Dolon is the little devil on Aruna’s shoulder, always coaxing her into things that she’s uncomfortable with. When Dolon receives a letter from home, we are not told what is exactly written in the letter. Instead, the camera focuses on Aruna who tells us the content and the way she says it, shows that this has always been the content of all the letters that Dolon receives and has ever received from her ‘home’: “Roof is leaking, need money for repairs. Mother’s health is failing, losing her vision too. This year Diwali will be a poor affair; you needn’t bother coming home”(Sonata 18:29-49). When Aruna tells her to come home with her, she declines the offer by saying that she has a huge work pressure. Later in the film, at one point, Dolon says that her Dada has asked for more money this time. The bubbly exterior gives away to a sad interior. We realise that this successful banker is not really welcome in her home. To her family she is just a person to provide them with money and all the comfort that they need. They really do not bother about her as a person. In this connection we cannot but think of two films- Meghe Dhaka Tara by Rwitik Ghatak and Ekdin Pratidin by Mrinal Sen- where the protagonists (in both the cases, the protagonist is a young girl) do not marry in order to support their families. In fact their families also never try to marry them off because, in that case, no one would be there to provide for them. While many feminists are of the opinion that marriage is a patriarchal institution and hence they refute it, the director of this film has shown the other side of the story: sometimes the woman does not marry as she cannot afford to do that; in that case the woman is a victim of the selfishness of her family. Though this is not within the scope of the film, still we can wonder why these women have not married: is it a refusal to accept the patriarchal norm or is there any other reason?

At one point Dolon asks, “Why do people dislike me?”(Sonata 28:40).Whom does she mean by “people”? The woman in the opposite apartment who once slammed her windows shut when Dolon smiled and waved at her? Or her family, who does not want her to come to home during the festival? Or Aruna?—because she drinks, smokes, eats meat (Aruna is a Brahmin hence disapproves this ), hugs and kisses; in short, because she is not as self-controlled as Aruna? The question remains unanswered. It is Dolon in the film whom we have seen worrying (though not too much) about putting on weight; it is she who enjoys watching the studs in TV; it is she who says, cancelling her diet plan and in a not-so-serious tone, that she will eat like a pig so that she can become so fat that the whole city of Mumbai can be kept illuminated from 15th August to 26th January as it is the “body has outlived its purpose if it had any to begin with in the first place” (Sonata 38:28-31); she is the one who talks about a deep-throat porn movie; she is the one who sings আজি ঝড়ের রাতে তোমার অভিসার / পরানসখা বন্ধু হে আমার …”(Sonata 40:31-42:29). Is there any regret behind her decision to not get married? Is there any longing? From her friend Subi we come to know that once an IT guy, who settled in Seattle, fell for her but she did not choose him. Is it because of her family? Or Aruna?... The question remains unanswered.

Another question that might pop up in our judgemental mind, a question that Aruna even raises in the film, would be why does Subi, though beaten up by her husband, does not leave him. We live in a time when we unitedly stand against any crime, domestic violence and physical abuse against any individual, in general, and women, in particular; we know that violence against women and girls is a serious violation of their right to dignity; we encourage the need to take measures by the Government to minimize rather eliminate these things from the society. During such a time how can an educated working woman (Subi is a journalist) tolerate this kind of behaviour, is beyond our understanding. However, having said these things we have to accept that this is our point-of-view. Subi’s relationship with her husband does not need to make sense to us; it only needs to make sense to them or rather to Subi. As she says it’s a man/woman thing and after all, Sangram, who is the owner of a garage, is not at all a bad fellow; moreover, he is “good, you know … very good…[in bed]”(Sonata 49:09-11), Subi tells us. She even adds that she cannot live the life of a “jogan”. Both Aruna and Dolon can be critical of Sangram, we may not like him (we meet him once in the movie; it is night, he has come to their complex; he is drunk and shouts Subi’s name from there); but if the relationship, in spite of all the physical and mental torture, on a regular basis, makes sense to Subi or if it makes her happy, we should not question that nor should we impose our ideas on them. Aruna sees this relationship the way it is seen by us or by the society at large; Subi adds another dimension to this.

Sex is an important topic of discussion among these three friends. Sometimes it is about Subi’s share of men in the world and how she likes to have various relationships or sometimes it’s about the awkwardness, that they feel must be there between Mira and Peter. Subi wonders how can Peter have a sexual relationship with someone who was formerly a man. However the most prominent sexual tension seems to be there between Aruna and Dolon, who are friends and have been roommates for many years. As said by a critic, Udita Jhunjhunwala, “Unmarried and childless, they have the ease and boredom of a couple too comfortable with each other.” We see them bickering at each other like old couples. They know each other too well. Though they chide each other at times, still they know how to comfort each other. At times we feel that they are much more than friends. There are many explicit references throughout the film that hint towards a possible romantic relationship between the two women. According to a film reviewer, Kennith Rosario, “But for two progressive, English speaking women, they never utter the word “lesbian” while confronting each other on the topic. Even the impudent Dolon, who otherwise chastises Aruna for being a prude, stays away from the L-word. It either reflects the ever-prevailing discomfort around homosexuality or the filmmaker’s myopic characterisation (the one department the film heavily rests on).” However, it seems a bit problematic that the characters who can have an open discussion on sex reassignment surgery will have any problem in admitting lesbianism. Moreover the question that arises is – why do we always have to name a relationship? How do we differentiate between the various forms of love? Is there any water-tight compartment between them? As the character of Siras says in the movie Aligarh that now-a-days we get stuck to the word itself and never try to understand and feel the word; the various names make the word sound dirty whereas it is a beautiful word. Poetry lies not in the written words but in the pauses between them. Similarly to understand any relationship it’s not compulsory to name it; it is more important to understand the nuances of the relationship. The same thing can be said about Aruna and Dolon. Whether they are lesbian or not is not important. What is important here is the fact that they not only understand each other’s words but also the silences and the pauses. Some of the best scenes of Aruna and Dolon is sheer poetry: for example, the scene where Aruna plays Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and sits in the chair and gets lost in the music-Dolon looks at her face and then puts a garland in her hair and places the lamp in such a way so that the light falls on Aruna’s face and notices how “lovely” Aruna looks and then says looking at her, “how regal, just like a queen” (Sonata 27:18-21).

As the film progresses many secrets of the past get revealed. We come to know that Aruna once had a relation with a man called Avinash and decided not to be with him because he did not want to settle down. He was a Bohemian, a gypsy; she liked his wildness. But as we have understood so far, she likes to have a conventional lifestyle. A little later Dolon reveals that when Aruna had sent her to Avinash after they departed as, according to her, Avinash would be “ripped apart”, Dolon met him and came back “all full of him”. She went to console him but seeing him in pain she “forgot everything” and surrendered herself to the moment. As she says, she wanted to cover Aruna with that happiness. She goes on to say that he was the only man whom she could have loved because Aruna loved him. In a very Bergmanian style the director presents the two women’s faces, sometimes separately sometimes merging into one, for near about a minute. The close-up scene of Aruna and Dolon’s face seems to remind one of a scene in Persona where, towards the end, both the faces merged into one. Though here the faces do not merge, we can see their underlying vulnerability and precarious status: between the openly visible and the smoothly impenetrable. Like in Persona, here also the faces go through all these permutations. Towards the beginning of this article I wrote how “these women have fought against “the social stigma”, and have fought for identity.” By the end of the film the fragile, unworthy, inauthentic selves are peeled away. Both the women are in turn stripped emotionally bare and have moments where they lose their composure. Besides questioning the ethics of stripping the soul naked of all pretence, like Bergman, Sen also shows us both women’s wily and ingenious self-fashioning during their encounters with each other.

The emotionally charged scene gets interrupted by a phone call, from Mira, the friend who was supposed to arrive by 10 o’ clock and who never arrives. Peter has died. Subi calls them to inform that a terrorist attack has taken place at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel in Mumbai and asks them to switch on the TV. It is 26th November 2008. Terrorists have attacked the hotel and several other places including Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, Oberoi Trident , Nariman House and many others. More than hundreds of people are kept as hostages. The terrorists open fired in the hotel. Many died. More number of people were wounded. The two women sit in front of the TV watching the news. Shocked. The film gradually fades out. In a wonderful way, the director shows us the flitting nature of life itself.

The film portrays the life of three middle-aged women. They are settled in life and have carved out their own identity. There are moments when they quarrel, criticise others and even each other. There are moments when they praise each other, support each other. They resurrect the past, try to resolve it. They also sit and recite “Because I could not stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me…” (Sonata 1:27:42-53). The film is thus a beautiful and haunting evocation of life, lived on one’s own’s terms. To use the words of Dolon, it would be better not to put it into words. The director focuses on the myriad lives of various women but does not come across as a radical feminist. Criticising themselves, rather giving voice to the judgement of the society, these women, quite sarcastically, say: “What awful creatures we are. Self-centered. Do nothing for society. No commitment, no aim, no ideology. We are not even feminist. We blow up money, we smoke, we drink. We are okay. We earn, we spend. … Chii, what kind of people are we? Totally decadent. But happy. Completely happy. Unabashedly happy. Aboundably happy. Obscenely happy. Nirlajja sada sukhi…” (Sonata 58:35-59:14). There is no need for us to judge them because life is too short to be anything but happy. The protected surface of their (and our as well) has been torn apart. There is no need to think about the people, about what they will think or about anyone else. Our identity or rather the ‘I’ matters the most. This is not self-centeredness or selfishness. This is all about living your life on your own terms.

Works Cited

Deodhar, Neerja. (2017). “Sonata movie review: Aparna Sen's film about three friends has potential to be much more.” FirstPost.

Elsaesser, Thomas. (2016) “The Persistence of Persona.” The Criterion Collection.

Jhunjhunwala, Udita. (2017). “Film Review: Sonata” LiveMint.

Rosario, Kennith. (2017). “ ‘Sonata’ review: A play pretending to be a film.” The Hindu. 

Waugh, Patricia (2006). Literary Theory and Criticism. Oxford University Press.

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