Konkona Sensharma does not need an introduction. Over the years, having made her debut as an actress under the directorial baton of her mother Aparna Sen. She went on to bag the National Award for Best Actress for her performance in Mr. & Mrs. Iyer. Over the years, she has acted in around 40 feature films in Hindi, Bengali and English. In a brief one-to-one, Konkona Sensharma talks about her directorial debut with A Death in the Gunj which is fetching rave reviews across the board since its release early this month after its screening at several noted film festivals in India and beyond, having been premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.
What is it that pulled you to the short story for your first directorial debut film?
I had never thought of taking up direction. This story however, narrated to me by my father Mukul Sharma when we used to holiday in McCluskiegunj as a child stayed with me somewhere at the back of my mind. Since McClukskiegunj was a very remote place with very little entertainment avenues for kids, my parents would narrate stories to kill the time. Most of my father’s stories were written by him. Some of them were fun stories, some were positioned in a remote, isolated place, some were eerie and chilling but they remained with me. I read the story many years later, discovering it during my stay with my father while my flat was being renovated. It remained in my head and grew and grew till I began to feel involved.
What is the story about?
Set in 1979, it is a coming-of-age story of a gangly, awkward, 23-year-old Shutu (Shyamal Chatterjee). He uses a family road trip to McCluskiegunj, an old, Anglo-Indian town as an escape from his failed semester. The story is set within seven days of the last week of the year ending on New Year ’s Day. The near-perfect family story has something amiss. How does Shutu place himself within this scenario? I have used an ensemble of actors, veterans, established young actors and one actor, Vikrant Massey who plays his first lead in the film as Shutu. I am very proud of his performance in a difficult role.
How easy or difficult was it to extend your creative pursuits from acting to direction?
It was an organic process that happened very slowly, bit by small bit, a little at a time. I never thought too far ahead. I was not sure about whether I would direct at all because I had no clue about getting a producer willing to invest in my film. The extension from acting to direction was not done by designed intent. I did not go looking for a story. This was a story that fascinated me at that time as I got more and more involved with the world within the story. When I narrated it to my friends and my team, they loved it. By the time we were ready to go, we all had internalised the story within us. Besides, directing was a liberating experience for me. I did not have to put on any make-up, bother about touching up after each shot, go for costume and look trials and the works.
How would you differentiate between the two – acting vis-à-vis direction?
It is difficult to answer because I have never thought of the two as mutually exclusive since I have been closely observing my mother’s directorial work since I was a child. What thrilled me was that my script of A Death in the Gunj was short-listed among nine scripts by the National Film Development Corporation for their Script Lab and was mentored by Marten Rabarts who later came on board as creative director. All this happened quite naturally. We also had Raagi Bhatnagar on board with us. I have never consciously considered the difference between acting and directing, really.
Your mother is extremely precise and detailed in her scripting of every film. How much has her directorial work inspired you?
Yes, yes, a great deal in fact. I have observed her and even worked with her behind the scenes for a long time. Though as a filmmaker, she is on a completely different level, she has influenced me a lot. She is extremely meticulous and precise and disciplined as a filmmaker and her paper work is ready when shooting begins. I unwittingly work the same way I have seen her doing. We were working on a shoe-string budget so we did not really have a choice but to plan meticulously.
What strategy did you follow in direction? Script reading sessions with your acting team and technical crew? Workshops and/or rehearsals before taking? A combination of all this?
You can say it was a happy combination of all these. We had several script reading sessions together with the cast and the crew and also separately with the actors. Most of them knew each other well so the rapport was already there.
Did you allow your actors to improvise?
Everything was minutely detailed which did not leave much scope for improvisation and I wanted everything to be just so. Everything was detailed in terms of shot-breaks, framing of shots, dialogue which all were done much ij advance. We had already done enough readings and had the time and space to thrash it out too. It is a small-budget film and since we were ready to shoot, the question of improvisation eased itself out.
As an actress, you must have picked notes from directors you have worked with- tell us about some of these influences
Most of all I have picked all directorial things, big and small, from my mother. I have spent a lot of time with her on the sets and while she is scripting at home. All this influenced me a lot, consciously and subconsciously. The other director I would love to mention is Rajat Kapoor who directed me in Mixed Doubles. I am inspired by the calmness he maintains on the sets. Working under the directorial baton of Rituparno Ghosh also was a great learning experience. But at that time, I did not imagine I would step into direction so most of it is distant.
Name a few of your personal favourites from among the films you have worked in till now.
This is a very difficult question to respond to because one is a favourite just now but may soon be replaced by another one. My all-time favourites are – Dosar directed by Rituparno Ghosh and 15, Park Avenue directed by my mother
Your maternal grandfather, your maternal grandmother, your mother and you have all won National Awards. Is this a burden you find heavy to carry?
I do not feel it a burden at all. In fact, it functions as a source of inspiration and gives me the courage to move on. It is an acknowledgement of your work and so far as my elders in the family are concerned, it is also a compliment and a mark of respect.
Name a couple of contemporary directors you would love to work with.
The two names that come uppermost are – Dibakar Banerjee and Buddhadeb Dasgupta since I have never worked under their directorial baton. And I am grateful to Madhur Bhandarkar for giving me my first lead break in Bollywood in Page 3.
Written byShoma A. Chattterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time