Konkona Sensharma on her clutter-breaking short in Ajeeb Daastaans: 'Was surrounded, supported by authentic voices'
'There's something very contemporary about his outlook. I love his politics and aesthetics,' Konkona Sensharma says about working with director Neeraj Ghaywan in Geeli Pucchi, where she plays a Dalit woman.
A powerhouse of talent, Konkona Sensharma has planted her foot firmly in the industry by exploring the art-house independent genre to its best capacity, not to forget her stellar directorial debut A Death In The Gunj which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), in 2016.
The winner of two National awards, Sensharma, who proved her mettle with performances in films like Page 3, Wake Up Sid, Life In A Metro, and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, is once again getting rave reviews for her performance in Geeli Pucchi, one of the short films from the recently released anthology Ajeeb Daastaans on Netflix. In this short, directed by Neeraj Ghaywan, Sensharma plays Bharati Mandal, a Dalit factory worker whose job, promotion and respectability is threatened when a prettier, upper-caste, fair-skinned all-feminine woman Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari) joins in. There’s also an unexpected friendship between the Brahmin white-collar colleague and a Dalit.
Sensharma is obviously thrilled with the feedback that she has been getting for Geeli Pucchi. “I was dying to work with Ghaywan. I love his work, he is such a modern thinker, there is something very contemporary about his outlook and I love his politics and his aesthetics. And then I got such a cool part...it is very rare that you get such a complex, well-rounded character to play,” says Sensharma. “I have often said that all of us have several identities...I am an Indian, I am a mother, I am an atheist, I am a Bengali... all meshed together. But often what happens in films is that we pick up just one thread, one angle and we examine it from there but in Geeli Pucchi we are looking at different aspects of each character,” says Sensharma.
She furthers, “Even as Aditi’s character is from a dominant caste, whereas, my character is not but both are equally affected by patriarchy which seems to be a great leveller. Bharati is a grey character and that is the beauty of Ajeeb Daastaans. Characters are slightly morally ambiguous in these stories. There’s a twist in every tale which I love personally. I used to love Roald Dahl’s twisted tales, and here too there is an entirely unexpected twist in the end. It is a revenge story, but it is a revenge that you can understand. Bharati has tried everything to get what she rightfully deserves. She has a degree, she is a hard worker, she asked for a raise but she never got any of that, she was denied all this repeatedly. There are too many barriers, too many hurdles that she has to overcome. She had to resort to other measures."
Sensharma also agreed to do the project because she found “surrounded and supported” by many authentic voices that were working on the film. “Neeraj himself is a Dalit and he has come out of it. I knew it was an authentic voice which was very important. Not just the director but even among the crew there were lot of different kinds of voices, so we had people from the LGBTQ community, from the Dalit community, we had academicians that were doing research on it, and, of course, we had a lot of women in the crew. I am always happy to read a character that is written with all these different complexities together allowing me to do something that I have never done before. It was also a great responsibility on my shoulder to play the part well and convey the right thing,” says Sensharma. “Also, she furthers, “Playing Bharati was very liberating for me because I had to just to wear those shoes and overalls and not worry about hair, make-up and wardrobe. I felt free and very relaxing in many ways. Hair would be just tied up and that was so easy. I really enjoyed it because then I got more time to spend with everyone and on the role,” she says.
Sensharma says that a lot of preparing went into playing the character. Besides referring to the script, she also read books and watched movies to get certain nuances right. “There were a lot of details in the script which was really helpful. Then, Neeraj gave me this fantastic book to read called Coming Out as Dalit written by Yashica Dutt. It was an eye-opener for me and I feel it should be read by everyone because people are under this notion that the caste system in our country doesn’t exist anymore. Neeraj also told me to watch this movie, Three Colours: Blue by Krzysztof Kieślowski which I had seen years back. In this film, the protagonist never smiles but Bharati does smile and even jokes. My character is so sweet and vulnerable, and that is what I like about it. I feel if a character is angry then you don’t have to show them angry all the time, because then there is contrast and it shows only one tone and it is not a complete, well-rounded character,” she says.
“Then, this beautiful lesbian love story called Below Her Mouth had deeply influenced me. I had watched this film at TIFF when I had gone there for A Death In The Gunj. The film’s lead actress Erika Linder blew my mind and I really channelled that a lot for playing Bharati Mandal. I had sent some pictures to Neeraj and my hair and costume department. Of course, she is a Canadian, so the cultural markers are different, but the essence of the character is quite similar,” says Sensharma, “I feel there are different kinds of masculinity. Personally; it is not that I feel like a woman all the time. I have a man inside me somewhere. I feel many men must be having a version of a woman inside them. I believe in human gender,” she further adds.
Sensharma grew up with cinema with her celebrated actor-director mother Aparna Sen. Her grandfather, Chidananda Dasgupta, a film critic, was a co-founder of the Calcutta Film Society along with Satyajit Ray. Sensharma made her acting debut as a child artiste in a Bengali film at the age of four and further made her adult debut in 2000 which was followed by a role in Rituparna Ghosh’s acclaimed film Titli opposite Mithun Chakraborty and Aparna Sen. However, till then she wasn’t quite sure about making her career in the acting profession, and it was only after she won a National award for Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) when she was just 23 that she started taking her acting career seriously. “I don’t know how I finally found a firm footing in cinema. My career took off from Mr and Mrs Iyer because after the film and the award, I got a lot many roles and then it was difficult to get out of it. But till then my attitude was, ‘Okay, theek hai, I am doing one or two movies on the side but now I have to look out for a real job. I used to actually look at the classifieds for a job (laughs).”
Sensharma may be called the different space actor who “dreaded” commercial films and someone who has often urged people to support indie films. But it is not that she hasn’t done commercial movies for big production houses, with some even becoming huge successes at the box office. For instance, Wake Up Sid, opposite Ranbir Kapoor. However, she calls Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page 3 as her first big commercial hit, though she agrees that it wasn’t really a commercial formula film. She has also been part of Yash Raj banner’s Aaja Nachle and Laga Chunari Mein Daag. When asked if none of these tempted her to chase stardom, pat comes the reply, “I don’t think you can chase stardom, stardom comes to some people and it is both, blessing and a curse. I never got that fame or stardom where people are mobbing you. I never experienced that. My unconventional childhood has affected everything in my life. It has affected the person, who I am, I am not afraid of being different. I am not afraid of having an unpopular opinion; I don’t feel the need to fit in all the time...”
“...but it is not that I have never felt that way. I have felt it when I was younger. Even now, I sometimes feel the need to straighten my curly hair to be acceptable (laughs) which is ridiculous. So one is battling different things at different times. But overall, my unconventional upbringing has given me that kind of confidence. My mother lived her life on her own terms and she has very strong value systems. You don’t have to accept everything that is out there. You can make your own choices, or disagree, or not participate. I am very privileged, I have inherited so many beautiful, liberal values from my family. There is so much respect for other human beings, for their beliefs, for their systems of living, it has been there from my grandparents' generation. I am very blessed to belong to such a progressive family. We got so much education, women got so much respect.” she says.
“The industry may work on certain perceptions but you don’t have to pay attention to it. At least I don’t have to, I don’t cater to that. It is true that there are labels, there is a certain kind of conventional cinema and that gets a certain amount of money but what can I do beyond a point. I just see my own life, my own work; I am very much an individual. I don’t really know what is happening in the industry, or what the trend is,” she adds.
Her directorial debut may have opened to glowing reviews but the film got limited screens and that made her realise that making and promoting a niche film wasn’t easy. Probably that is the reason she is not thinking about directing her next.
"The kind of films that I might want to make, I don’t know how easily I will get the funding for. It is a big process and a lot of hard work, so unless I am really dying to make another film I don’t think I will. I have decided not to take on the pressure. Also, I am basically an actor. I have acted in more than 50 films and I have directed only one feature and one short. I feel like an actor. Now I am getting some decent roles and I am quite busy with that. The best thing is that I am getting to work with so many other good actors who never got their due. There are so many good actors around and I am so happy working with them. But the sad part is we have so much censorship in our country that we can’t talk about any issues any more. We are only going to say, ‘Everything is so lovely, everything is so perfect. We can only work in deep sarcasm,” says Sensharma.
And her face lights up at the mention of Aparna Sen’s next directorial The Rapist, in which she plays one of the central characters along with Arjun Rampal and Tanmay Dhanania. “We just wrapped the film. For a month we were in Delhi, we finished the schedule ahead of time and I came back and got sick. I am so excited and nervous about that film. What an unusual story! How my mother wrote and thought about it I really don’t know. It also has an unusual cast. Obviously, there is a rape in the film but it is just that what all happens afterwards that I wouldn’t have even imagined,” she says.
Talking about the time spent in the pandemic, Sensharma says that during the second wave of covid she is promoting Ajeeb Daastaans, and last year, during the first phase of lockdown she was promoting Dolly Kitty. “I remember my answers from last year which still hold true (she laughs), “I always knew how to drive but one never really drove much, so during the lockdown last year I started driving a lot more in my neighbourhood. I learnt how to parallel park. I learnt to embrace my curly hair because the salons were closed. Then I adopted a puppy. It has been quite an eventful lockdown and now it is all over again and it is much worse,” she says. “People are having large religious and cultural gatherings, never have I seen something so irresponsible. How can you have political rallies? It is a height of stupidity and irresponsibility,” she asserts signing off.
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