“I Don’t Like Being Looked At” – Konkona Sensharma
It is difficult to look Konkona Sensharma directly in the eyes. She might be a petite, demure, casually-dressed actor, having an informal conversation with you on a random evening — but her eyes burn, black and fiery, exuding power, crackling talent and intelligence. Her directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj, has just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and she has a relatively less crazy schedule. “I am so jet-lagged,” she smiles wearily, as she rolls a cigarette for herself. “I had to get back to sorting things out at home. The Wi-Fi is not working; the dryer is not working…” To hear her crib about such mundane domesticity is both unnerving and enjoyable.
You are unlikely to find anyone who does not enjoy watching Sensharma on-screen. Even in films that can go down as bad choices, she has not delivered bad performances. It almost feels like she does not know how to. In the mainstream space, she has primarily played a second fiddle, but one who always finds mention in the reviews and is remembered by the audience. “I wish I had a 9-to-5 job, you know,” she says, surprisingly. “I have never had that. No one in my family has had that. People tell me I would get very bored of it, but I would like to try it out.”
After a string of roles as a kid, Sensharma made a road-less-taken debut with Ek Je Aache Kanya (2001), a Bengali thriller about an 18-year old girl infatuated with an older man. She was immediately celebrated in the niche indie circuits; her talent recognised and appreciated. She followed that up with Rituparno Ghosh’s Titli (2002), in which she stars alongside her mother, veteran actor and film-maker, Aparna Sen, and Mithun Chakraborty. It was Sen’s Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002), with Rahul Bose, that put her on the national radar — and got her a National award. Sensharma had arrived. “I was in my second year of college when Ek Je Aache Kanya was offered to me,” she says. “I did it during the break between my semesters. Even Titli was like a vacation in the mountains, because I was hanging around my mother and Rituparno [Ghosh], who has always been a close family friend. For Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, my mother tricked me into the role. She told me to go to Chennai as her researcher and then I realised that I had been cast in the role all along. I never wanted to be an actor. But, only after Mr. and Mrs. Iyer and the National award and the kind of media attention I received did I realise that this is something I could take up. Also, I had started doing my MA then, and I had to quit because it was so boring, and interesting offers like Amu and Page 3 came my way. I didn’t want to turn them down.”
What followed was a string of commercially and critically acclaimed films, like her Bollywood debut, Page 3 (2005); 15 Park Avenue (2005) with Shabana Azmi and Rahul Bose; Dosar (2006); Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara (2006); and Life in a…Metro (2007). It was also in 2007 that she tried dabbling with mainstream Bollywood formats, in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag and Aaja Nachle, lip-syncing to playback, dancing choreographed pieces with Rani Mukherjee and Madhuri Dixit-Nene and amping up the melodrama. Thankfully, Wake up Sid (2009) came her way, and everyone fell in love with the pairing of Sensharma and Ranbir Kapoor. She had a few misses after that in Bollywood, but she knocked out one stellar performance after another in Bengali — her mother’s semi-autobiographical Iti Mrinalini (2011), Shunyo Awnko (2013), Goynar Baksho (2013) and Shajarur Kanta (2015). She did do Ek Thi Daayan (2013) in between, delivered a cracker in Talvar last year and was seen in Akira last month.
In the middle of this, she made her directorial debut with A Death in the Gunj, which will have its Indian premiere at MAMI this month. Starring the likes of Om Puri, Tanuja Mukherjee, Vikrant Massey, Ranvir Shorey, Kalki Koechlin, Gulshan Devaiah, Tillotama Shome and Jim Sarbh, the film has already received rave reviews after its screenings at TIFF, and there is an excited buzz about it at home. While she might not have planned to become an actor, was film-making always on the cards? “Not at all,” she laughs. “The film is actually based on a story by my father [Mukul Sharma], and I have been listening to it since I was a kid. He is a delicious storyteller, and I thought that the story had the potential to become a movie. I never thought I would be able to write a script either, and so I narrated the story to a couple of writer friends, but they thought it would be best if I wrote it myself. Because I have the whole thing in my head, you know, running like a film. I knew exactly what I wanted. After the first draft, I took it to the NFDC Film Lab and it was mentored beautifully. We wrote a few more drafts and the final script took shape. Also, my mother really liked the script, and that gave me a lot of confidence. And, then, I wasn’t going to give it to anyone else to direct, of course.”
I wonder if being a film industry kid made her ready to control a set. “There is a certain sense of ease, yes, because I have been seeing the whole process of film-making since I was a child. From production meetings to scriptwriting to films getting released, I have seen it all. Also, because I have been an actor, I am very comfortable around sets, people and equipment. I would talk to my mother often, too. But, this is my first feature film [she had made a short film earlier called Naamkoron] and at the end of the day, I did wing it.” I had to ask the obvious question after this — acting or film-making? “That is quite unfair,” Sensharma says. “I have acted in 40 films and directed one-and-a-half. But, yes, as an actor, you don’t have control over everything, and there might be a lot of stuff that you don’t agree with. Earlier in my career I used to be irritated and affected by that, but I have learned to let that go. As a director, you are in complete control of the creative process, which is a great thing. Also, I really don’t like being looked at. I love to watch.” That is a shocking confession from an actor of such talent and prowess. Does she have a process, and has she seen it evolve over the years? “Not as such. I might have a few things here and there, but I generally follow my director. Now, different directors work differently. Some do extensive preparation and rehearsals, while others don’t. I enjoy the process of rehearsals.” Does she enjoy the process of preparing for a role, when asked for? “Yes, I do, but it is a lot of hard work. And, I am a Bengali, at the end of the day; speaking in Hindi continuously is quite a strain. On top of that, they ask me to do accents, like a Tamilian accent in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer or a UP accent in Omkara,” she laughs.
Her son, Haroon, has come back home for the day, and we have to wrap up our chat. Do you like doing nothing, or do you have to be continuously involved with something? “Both, actually. I would love to not do anything, but when I am not doing anything I drive people up the wall. I start cleaning the house and stuff like that. I love it when I am busy. But, ideally, it is very healthy to take a break and not do anything at all for some time.” And, do you watch films regularly? “No,” she says emphatically. “I work very hard, you know, and whatever time I have I left, I spend it with my son. But, I really enjoyed Kapoor & Sons recently.” I watch her son excitedly narrate his day to her. Sensharma humours him, animatedly asking for details. She introduces me to him, we shake hands, and he goes back to talking about his day. I take my leave, mother and son happily chattering behind me, those eyes of hers gleaming with happiness and satisfaction.