A MISTY TOWN, a blue Ambassador with a broken tail-light and two men shoving a dead body into the boot of the car—A Death in the Gunj draws you into its world from frame one and keeps you curious all through. Many of us may not have heard of McCluskieganj, 65 km from Ranchi, before this film. Konkona Sen Sharma admits she set her first film as a director in a place that has almost fallen off the country’s map. The story is set in 1979 and its atmosphere is so surreal that you might think it came alive on the pages of her screenplay. You see a crumbling old bungalow, an upper-class Bengali household, friends holidaying and raising a toast to the end of a dramatic year. The relationship politics might make you squirm in your seat. “As a kid, I used to live a lot in my own head. I’d imagine things, but I’d also observe keenly,” says Konkona.
Her directorial debut opened the recently concluded Mumbai film festival (MAMI) to a unanimously positive response, but she is not one to get carried away. “I’ve always hesitated to take it very seriously because nobody is going to come up to me after my screening and say that I’ve made a bad film. Invariably, I get wonderful responses and I discount them a lot,” she says, carefully rolling her cigarette sitting in the study of her 13th floor flat in Versova, Mumbai. Dressed in a simple white cotton kurti and with loosely clipped hair, she is exactly as you’d expect her to be, but more petite. Her body language is carefree and she’s careful in her articulation. Her home is cosy and intimate, dotted with books and minimal furniture. She looks away between responses into nothingness. Bringing her back is her five-year-old boy Haroon asking for permission to bathe with his pet penguin.
Konkana wrote her film in the mornings while her son was at school. It was a story she had heard from her dad when she was six or seven and it stayed with her well into adulthood. “I was living in Delhi, and discussed the story with dad, and I remember standing in my living room balcony thinking I could make this into a movie. My grandparents had a house in this village that was created in 1933 especially for the Anglo-Indian community in India. Post-Independence, many of those families moved away in search of new job prospects and McCluskieganj almost became like a place the world had forgotten. My parents would go there on holiday very often and what happens in the film is what happened during one of those trips,” she says.
The world she has created in the film is new to everyone but her. Her characters stem from those she grew up around, and hence don’t seem contrived. The film carries itself with subtle melancholy, without being dark or intimidating. Her frames are lit either in sunlight or dim candle light, and the only bright spots on screen are floral outfits and deep lipstick. The background score is minimal and effective, and even eerie at times, with notes of the piano and violin.
In its intimacy and silences, A Death in the Gunj transports viewers to Konkona’s mother Aparna Sen’s film 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981). Both the films slide under your skin like slow poison, revealing life’s lonely nature. “I have been watching 36 Chowringhee Lane ever since I was a kid. I have all the dialogues memorised. I think anyone who has watched my mother’s work would know that she has always told a story if and only if she really believed in it. Her process has always been very organic and I think even for me there’s no other way of doing it. Of course, the fact that I was directing for the first time terrified me, and I think it still does. But I would have rather burnt the script than given it to someone else to direct,” she says.
The fact that i was directing for the first time terrified me. But I would have rather burnt the script than given it to someone else to direct
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Be it as an actor or now as a director, the fact that Konkona grew up in a family of storytellers is evident. She acted in her first film Indira (1983) at the age of four and bagged her first National Award for her fourth and most talked about role till date in Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002). As the bright eyed, mildly gullible, yet strong- headed Tamilian mother with a toddler on her hip, Konkona was so convincing that we almost forget she’s Bengali. She was a natural, her accent and apprehensions making for easy empathy with her character. “I grew up in an environment where films were being written, discussed, spoken about, and virtually created brick-by-brick in front of me. Growing up in Calcutta, there used to be production meetings held in my house because my mum used to make a lot of independent films. Movies were not being made out of studios then. I would walk around in a little frock watching how much fun they were having, and apparently made my parallel budgets for the film on the side. Some afternoons I would even pretend to be the director and I’d make my mother act when she was trying to take a nap. I was always in and out of film sets and I used to love it.”
Despite the creative cacophony around her, Konkona believes she has had a relatively normal childhood. Her parents separated when she was very young, but stayed friends—for which she is grateful. She had to follow rules at home, but none that would stifle her imagination or reinforce a stereotype. Her environment was liberal, atheistic and pushed her to find her own niche. “My mother didn’t have too many rules for me. I could watch anything, read anything and do whatever I wanted. Except she didn’t let me watch the Ramayana or the Mahabharata when it first came on television. She was like, ‘I do not want your exposure to the epics to be this. I want you to imagine it first in your head.’”
I grew up in an environment where films were virtually created brick-by-brick in front of me
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INFLUENCED BY BOOKS, music, world cinema and Satyajit Ray, Konkana grew less shy and more expressive with age. “My dad was extremely progressive and a feminist, and so was mum. By virtue of my parents being the way they were and the work they did, I just assumed that everyone in the world was extremely tolerant and liberal, and then realised the world is not like that.”
Having seen the backend of making moves and not the glamorous side, she was initially sure she didn’t want to act or direct. “I knew that it would be difficult. Especially because of the way we were brought up, the films that we identified with are not the kind of films which were mainstream. I didn’t really relate to the bulk of the mainstream kind of films and so I knew that it wasn’t my space. The alternative space was very difficult. I would see people around me work so hard to gather the money and goodwill to make the cinema they believed in, and I did not want to go through that grind.”
But life had other plans. She did her first full-length feature as a lead in Ek Je Aachhe Kanya (2001) in her second year of college and confesses she cried through most of the shoot. “I didn’t enjoy acting in the first few years at all. I was very unhappy because I was such a snob back then. I still am and I don’t think it’s a bad thing because I think it’s nice to have high standards. I was like, ‘Why are they making me do this?’, ‘Why do I have to stand like this, dress like this?’, ‘Why have they designed the set like this?’ I didn’t really enjoy being looked at, photographed, or really being the centre of attention. I was happy being on the sidelines as well. I was just awkward and uncomfortable initially.”
It was her theatre experience in college that spurred her love for acting and direction. Living on north campus in Delhi University, sharing an apartment with three other friends, she fondly remembers curating plays and indulging in rehearsals. “After college I’d constantly travel between Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta shooting and literally living out of a suitcase. Eventually I found my own rhythm, and I was grateful for opportunities that came my way. It’s not like I learnt a new skill or anything, which I wish I had. I learnt to detach to a certain extent with the film I was doing, that development happened over a few years to the point where I became more comfortable.”
With the films she chose, or the films that chose her, Konkona became the face of non-commercial cinema. From the curious young girl desperate to find her identity in a country that’s almost alien to her in Amu (2005) to the feisty and idealistic journalist in Page 3 (2005) to the sharp-tongued wife from Uttar Pradesh in Omkara (2006), her roles were real, gritty, and rooted to reality. Konkona always added a bit of her self to the parts she played. She did not always consciously separate herself from her roles and that was her great strength. She could carry off the part of a schizophrenic in 15 Park Avenue (2005) as convincingly as she did of a young aspiring writer in Wake Up Sid (2009), and most of all, she cared little about the fuss around her.
“I was being offered certain kinds of films and I couldn’t relate to something which was completely commercial. I’d take my lead from my director. Like Rituparno Ghosh did not do any workshops or prep before the shoot. His film Dosar (2006), about a woman after she discovers that her husband is having an affair, has been among my favourite films that I’ve done,” she says.
KONKANA IS ONE of the few contemporary Indian actors to have played strong women characters, who reflect her own beliefs. Her mother’s work, which has always celebrated the independent Indian woman, has been the strongest influence in her life. “I remember her film Paroma (1984) had created a stir; they attacked [my mother] outside the cinema hall, saying, ‘How can you show a woman like this?’ Mum has always lived life on her terms; she hadn’t really cared about what people think, which is very empowering. I grew up surrounded by very strong women. It was a way of being… she lived the independent woman’s life. She has always been more of a friend to me. I could talk to her about whatever I wanted, even tell her things I couldn’t talk to my friends about. She never thrust her opinion on me, but always encouraged me to have one. All of these are influences that made me the person I am,” she says.
Today, as director, she has turned over a new leaf. Her journey as a daughter, an actor, a wife and now a mother have all contributed to the cinema she puts out and would like to in the future. “I’m glad in a way that I have had the experience of being a mother and these five years have taught me so much in terms of stamina, perseverance, tenacity and lack of sleep! I think I could do this film because I have been through the rigours of that. Having kids, you learn about life, and now I think I have like a breadth of experience which I would have missed out on had I not been a parent. Happiness doesn’t come in a sustained fashion and that’s how you learn and grow. If my work reflects that, I would consider that a plus,” she says.