Director Konkona Sen Sharma’s debut has earned an award at the Mumbai Film Festival. She speaks on growing up with cinema, her first steps as an actor and the low number of women directors.
Did the story of A Death in the Gunj lead you to turn writer and director?
I had not planned on directing a film even though this story is like a family anecdote. My father’s parents used to live in McCluskieganj (now Jharkhand) in the 1970s and early 1980s. They would drive there from Kolkata and many stories were born during those road trips. One story stayed with me, but I never thought I would do anything with it. It is only when I had my son, Haroon, and I was not getting as many interesting acting offers, that I thought of developing this. At the time, I was staying with my dad (Mukul Sharma), who had written a short story on it. I developed it into a longer one. A lot of myself and my experiences went into it. To develop a full-length feature film, I had to add nuances and layers.
Since you have been on the sets of your mother (director Aparna Sen)’s films as a child, did direction appear daunting at all?
It was daunting but it is a challenge I wanted to take on. It was not like I wanted to be a director and was looking for a story. I had developed the story to a point where I felt I had to direct it and, therefore, write a script. Since I have seen my mother direct films, which were not in the mainstream space, I knew that it is not easy to raise funds and get distribution.
What are your early memories of cinema and what left an impression on you?
From a very young age, I would watch all kinds of films with my family. I was not allowed to watch mainstream Bengali or Hindi films, but we watched a lot of parallel, classic and world cinema. It is not one particular film that left an impression on me or changed me; it was a lifestyle. I come from a very progressive, bohemian and tolerant family. My parents were separated when I was seven but they went on to marry wonderful people. I had an unconventional upbringing. My mother lived life on her own terms and did what she considered to be right. This was a beautiful example for me. The people around me, the personalities that my parents were and the choices they made, all of that made me the person that I am.
Since you insist on names, I loved the movies by Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut. I could really get into their world, beliefs and characters.
Initially, you were not very sure of pursuing acting as a career. Did the success of Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) encourage you?
More than Mr and Mrs Iyer, it was the National Award for Best Actress that I received for the film that set things in motion for me. I had done Rituparno Ghosh’s Titli (2002) by then. However, before Mr and Mrs Iyer released, I went back to Delhi for my master’s in Delhi University and I was very disenchanted. I was looking for jobs in journalism or advertising when the National Award was announced. That changed the course of my life. I received a number of offers and one of them was Page 3 (2005). I slowly started appreciating acting more. Earlier, I was uncomfortable being looked at and watched. I would rather be the observer. Eventually, I learned to become more detached and be more involved in my own craft.
Were you more self-critical in your early years?
Maybe. I am still quite critical of myself and I think it is good to have high standards. I was also critical of other people’s work. I let that go after a point of time.
Do you follow a process while approaching a role?
I usually follow my directors. They have their own process. Some directors like to do a lot of preparation, workshops and look tests. My mother does a very detailed and thorough preparation, which I find very helpful, especially while playing a part which is removed from me culturally, socially, economically and chronologically. There are some, like Rituparno Ghosh, who don’t do any prep, at least with me, and that worked out beautifully too.
You seem to have chosen your cast very carefully. How did you go about it?
By and large, I work intuitively, be it directing or acting. While writing A Death in the Gunj, I was very clear about the characters. Ranvir Shorey came to my mind for the role of Vikram, and Vikrant Massey for Shutu. Others I discovered along the way. Honey Trehan suggested Tanuja for the role of Anupama Bakshi and she is a fantastic choice.
The number of women directors has remained low in India. Why?
We have so few women directors that it is abysmal. I believe there should be many more women directors, since we are underrepresented. This does not necessarily mean that they will make woman-centric films. That’s their wish. The reasons for this imbalance are many — maybe women are not given as many opportunities, believe as much in themselves or maybe the system is not in place to give them that voice. A part of the problem is that generally men get more opportunities than women.
Many times women have to make certain choices in terms of career and family. Many times, the film sets are hostile to women.
Lipstick Under My Burkha, in which you have acted, was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival.
I am very excited about this film. It explores the interior life of four women in Bhopal. We don’t talk about female desire — whether it is sexual or the desire to create a space for herself. This film addresses that. This film is very specific to a certain time and place.
While studying in Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, your performance of Kali in Hayavadana was applauded. Do you miss acting on stage?
I don’t miss theatre, though I would be happy to do more plays. I don’t miss things. Life is all about change. I make an effort to embrace that change. During my college life, our socialising was about rehearsals. I really enjoyed playing the role of Kali. The other plays which stayed with me are Dario Fo’s Open Couple and Line by Israel Horovitz, among others.
Do you plan to direct another movie?
I am not sure. I was so taken by this story that many things came together. I am hoping to find similar inspiring stories. Otherwise, I don’t want to direct a film just for the sake of it.