Konkona Sensharma’s A Death in the Gunj was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is the opening title at the Mumbai Film Festival. The period drama, based on a short story by her father Mukul Sharma, is set in 1979 outside McCluskiegunj in Jharkhand, which was at one time home to a sizable Anglo Indian community. Sensharma’s first full-length feature (she has previously directed the short film Nammakaran) opens with a sense of foreboding. A tragedy has occurred, and we rewind to a week before when a family and friends get together in a colonial-era bungalow for a winter vacation and New Year’s eve celebration. At the centre of it all is Shutu (Vikrant Massey), a sensitive young man who would rather hang out with his young niece Tani than keep company with the adults, who make him the constant butt of their jokes.
In a lengthy conversation with Scroll.in, the acclaimed actress maps her journey, which has been marked by a balance between personal beliefs and professional compulsions, a charismatic maternal figure and, more recently, motherhood, and the constant search for excellence. Edited excerpts from the transcript.
My grandfather Chidananad Dasgupta was a very well known film critic, historian and director. He co-founded the Calcutta Film Society with Satyajit Ray. And my mother Aparna Sen has been an actor, a film director, editor of a women’s magazine, and also an activist. My father is also a storyteller, a writer, a columnist, a science and humour writer, and a futurist.
For me, that was normal. That was my childhood. My parents separated when I was six, so that was also normal. But at some point I realised that this is very unconventional. I think that’s probably why I have such a comfortable relationship with being different. I prefer being on the margin, on the periphery of the mainstream industry.More than anything, at our home there was a very loving, affectionate, demonstrative type of a family. Of course, they are all very well educated and well read, but there wasn’t this crazy pressure for academics. My dad was like, “Fail, fail, it doesn’t matter.” My mom said, “Just try hard.” She never said, what time are you coming back, when will you be home. There was never any need to rebel.
I had applied to NYU [New York University] and I had gotten in, but I didn’t get a scholarship. My mom told me that we will manage, we will organise for you to go, but I said no. There’s no need, I am happy to stay in Calcutta and study at Jadavpur [University] or something. My mom said no, you must go somewhere, it will be good for you. I had a friend at St Stephen’s [University] in New Delhi. So I applied, and luckily I had the grades to get in.
I loved it. Not necessarily only for the academics, but also the environment. I did plays. In my entire first year I didn’t act because I was so shy to audition. I was doing backstage and props. By my second year, I started acting. We did some amazing plays. I never thought this (acting) is what I would do. I thought probably I would get a job after college.
I was acting from the age of four. And even that first acting incident happened because I was accompanying my mom to a set. The child actor they had got was crying and would not perform, and the other boy’s parents had fought and gone home. And so they said, “Okay, Konkona is on set. Why don’t we just cut her hair and put her in?” So they did, and I was happy because I was hanging with my mom. Apparently I also did my own dubbing.
Then when I was eight, I was in my grandfather’s film [Amodini]. So acting had been just helping out my family, being an extra somewhere. I acted in Sati  and Shabana Azmi [who starred in the movie] saw me. I was constantly hearing, “Oh, you’re such as good actor,” and I hate being told what to do. I cannot bear being told what to do.
My mom never let me watch Hindi films growing up. I was not allowed to watch mainstream Hindi films or mainstream Hindi television – we used to watch Buniyaad, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, but not Mahabharat and Ramayana. My mother did not want my first exposure to the epics to be someone’s skewed imagination on TV. She said, “You decide what they should look like.” At the time, I hated it. The Bold and The Beautiful had just come out, and all my friends were watching it. But my mom said no.
But she opened my eyes towards other things. I would travel with her to the Moscow Film Festival, to Egypt. She never stopped me from watching any film. So even if I wanted to be an actor, I knew that I wouldn’t be acting in mainstream films, whether it’s Bengali or Hindi. And I knew how difficult it is in the alternative space, in terms of finding a space for yourself, earning money.
I did a film when I was in my second year, a Bengali remake of The Crush starring Alicia Silverstone, where I played a negative character [Ek Je Kanya Aachhe Kanya]. I did it for a lark but it happened to do well. Then I did film with Rituparno Ghosh called Titli because he’s a family friend. I was doing my MA, and my mother was writing Mr and Mrs. Iyer. She lured me into doing the film by sending me to Chennai to do some research. Meanwhile, my MA turned out to be such a disaster. We were reading John Donne poems aloud, and I remember one day the teacher asked the class the difference between a simile and a metaphor.
I left my MA and went to act in Mr and Mrs Iyer. And then I won a National Award.
I went back to New Delhi, was looking at the classifieds for jobs, and went to a few interviews. But everyone started recognising me. It became difficult to get a job, and then I also got a few interesting film offers. So I settled in. There was this acceptance, with a lot of gratitude, for what I do.
In a similar way, I never wanted to do direct. Ever. I made a short film but even that was because the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival asked me to, and a good friend of mine helped me out. By then I had settled into acting, and understood that not all of the work is great, a lot of it is crap. But that this is the way I earn my living. There were pros and cons, like everything in life.
I had my son and also the roles coming my way were not so great. I kept thinking at the time that I need to do something else. At the same time, my dad is a very charismatic man and tells lots of great stories – funny stories, ghost stories. A Death in the Gunj is based on one of his stories. My grandparents do own a house in McCluskiegunj, my parents used to go there with friends, and there was a young fellow who used to tag along and they didn’t take him seriously, there was a (seance) and a prank. But that’s all that I took from the real life incident.
The story just fascinated me, and I’d ask my father to tell it to me again and again. Eventually it just grew in my head, and I developed it. I thought I need to get a writer to write it. But when I asked writer friends, and would give an hour-long narration, they’d say, “You need to write it. You know it so well.” So I wrote it, and many, many drafts later, I realised that I have to direct it.
For me, A Death in the Gunj is a psychological drama. It’s about human interactions. And also about what is expected from us. I think men are also victims of patriarchy. There is such a toxic masculinity that is so acceptable in our daily lives, and when men don’t conform to that, how do they deal with? How do other people deal with?
Of course, many people did not want to finance A Death in the Gunj because they look at film as a business, and they did not want to take a risk. But I have not faced the kind of problem that maybe a regular filmmaker would. I come from such a position of privilege. It’s not hard for me to get in the door.
The roles I have been getting recently were much older, smaller. But even those were not interesting. I am 37. I don’t think people are interested in telling the stories of women in their thirties. Because who is making these decisions? Men in their fifties are taking these calls. They want to see women in their twenties. That’s the crux of the matter. If it’s not men in their fifties, then it’s women pretending to be men in their fifties, because that’s what works.
So I have to do my own thing. I make my own films. I am a mom. I am bringing up a feminist son. What else can I do? I am fairly optimistic like that.
From our balcony, we see a park and a street. Every day, we see boys in the park playing football or cricket, or walking on the street, or at night on their motorcycles. And I ask my son Haroon, “Where are the girls? How come you don’t see any girls?” And he says, “Yeah, where are they? What are they doing?” It’s not that we have answers. But we have to ask the question. Why are the girls not in public spaces, or why are they not owning the streets like the boys are?
My mum, the way she lived her life, inspired me. For many years, she lived as a single mum, and she did her thing fearlessly. She didn’t really care what people thought. She has high moral principles and values, and did what she wanted to do to make herself happy. That was a great example. I have many strong women in my life: my mom, my mashi [aunt], my mother’s friends. They live life on their own terms.