A Death in the Gunj (2016) made me homesick for the India I grew up in. I related in some way to all of the characters, from the parents to the precocious pre-teen. In them, I saw an India I miss, where a simple way of living didn’t preclude being aware and educated. The tension the director orchestrated between the characters was, at once, real and moving, funny and shocking. Determined to learn more about Konkona Sen Sharma, I was thrilled when she granted me an interview:
Konkona, you’re a remarkable person. What made you an independent actor and director rather than a mainstream actor?
My own identity, the way I developed, is that I didn’t relate to a lot of the mainstream in cinema. Of course, there are exceptions, films that I have loved, but I didn’t see myself fitting into that. The kind of films I chose were the ones that reflect my own sensibility, by and large.
What message might you have for young people coming into the film industry? Should they be chasing awards or is there something else that has kept you engaged and will inspire you to stay on?
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Well, my first National Award (for Mr and Mrs Iyer, 2002) did change my life because it got me a lot of attention and more opportunity. However, I don’t think awards play such a big part, because I know so many wonderful and talented actors who’ve not received awards. So, it’s really a nice encouragement, a lovely thing, but it is naive to not see it in perspective, and it’s a small thing at the end.
What I would like to share as a life philosophy is that, of course, one should pursue one’s life’s dream and ambition, but, also, I think that it’s best not to expect all of one’s happiness to come from one event or one person. So, it’s not like I can be happy only if I’m a successful actor, or if I have such and such person in my life.
What role did your parents play in shaping your life philosophies?
Both of my parents have had a huge impact on me, especially my mother. She believed that you should define your values for yourself and not live your life based on other people’s expectations of you. You should not be afraid of making decisions which are not expected of you. You should have courage and faith in yourself and your own life.
Are you giving your son the same set of values, letting him be an independent mind as he grows?
I like to think so. One of the chief things I got from my family was to be a free thinker and that it is right to question and evaluate for ourselves. I would like to impart this to my son Haroon as well, and it is up to him to invite influences from both his father and me and then to develop his own personality.
Is there a message your movie A Death in the Gunj should have shared?
I would have liked people to understand that some are not able to express their own isolation or vulnerability or loneliness. People understand the system — even in family dynamics — that some people have power over others, some can get away with things, some can’t. Why do these dynamics exist? There’s so much casual cruelty in everyday life which we don’t always recognise. Sometimes, the need for us to blend in is so high that someone who isn’t blending in is a great threat to our own identity and existing systems of power. I would be happy if people can learn to empathise with others. Yes, sometimes people are crass and different kinds of borders are created, but we must connect to them, understand them. In essence, we are all living, we all know what it is to feel life, love, and loss.
That’s what I saw in the protagonist Shutu (Vikrant Massey). As a gay man in India, the gay artist in the family, I could relate to him. But you crushed me, because when I thought he would shoot Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), he shoots himself instead.
I wanted you to feel that. You know why? Because there are people who cannot deal with having difficulties, who are struggling, who turn that violence outward; but there are some who turn that violence inward.
Does having studied at St Stephen’s in Delhi University make you an elitist?
I would not call myself an elitist definitely, because what we’re born into we don’t have much of a say in. I think it’s very important to understand and to acknowledge the privilege my family has had for generations that has trickled down and allowed me to be educated and empowered. Hopefully, I can use this privilege in ways to help other lives. There is generational and structural injustice, not just in Indian society, but in the world at large, and that is something that must be addressed. All lives are equally valid.
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