Why you cannot miss Konkona Sensharma’s directorial debut
A Death in the Gunj is proof that Indian cinema has a bold new voice
In 1979, McCluskieganj was dying. For almost four decades, this ‘mini London’ in Bihar, now Jharkhand, made an idyllic Anglo-Indian settlement with a scattering of Bengalis and adivasis. By the ’70s, it landed in an economic slump. Each year, the town’s foggy streets grew quieter and its colonial bungalows, emptier. A Death In The Gunj, Konkona Sensharma’s debut directorial feature, is a deep dive into this time and mood—of aggressive sideburns, listless afternoons and a general sense of gloom. “Time has stood still there,” says Sensharma, for whom it remains the magical place she remembers from childhood vacations at her grandparents’ home.
A Death In The Gunj is based on a short story written by her father, Mukul Sharma, and is inspired by the events of a particular road trip her parents took to McCluskieganj in the ’70s. Over time, Sensharma began to add her own marginalia—memories of distant relatives and notes on human dynamics. After working through seven drafts at the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation of India) National Script Lab, she had a watertight script in place. The psychological drama unfolds over seven days, when a retired couple (played by Tanuja and Om Puri) are visited by their son’s family from Kolkata around Christmas. The house is overrun with drunken reunions and pre-Internet pranks. But beneath the bright skies and hearty laughs, you begin to sense with growing unease, the impending tragedy and silent pulling-apart of relationships. “A huge inspiration was Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975),” says Sensharma. “I wanted slower, more deliberate shots. I don’t know if this is my style, but it seemed like the right choice for this film.”
What the new director (she’s previously made a short film called Naamkaran in 2006) is certain of in retrospect though, is that she needed to be a mother before she became a film-maker. It proved a very useful qualification. “I have a short temper, but I worked very hard at not losing it, many times. The level of patience and tolerance, tenacity and perseverance [that a film requires]—I learnt only from being a mother.”
The film features an ensemble of alt cinema stars that includes Kalki Koechlin, Gulshan Devaiah, Tillotama Shome, Jim Sarbh and ex-husband Ranvir Shorey. But Vikrant Massey as the vulnerable protagonist Shutu—a 20-something student who is often picked on by the older boys—is the one you can’t take your eyes off. Sensharma says he was her easiest casting decision. “I saw him in Lootera (2013) and he absolutely stood out for me. What an amazing actor! When I started writing the film, I thought of him first,” she says.
Like Shutu, Sensharma’s youth was spent shrinking into corners at family gatherings and studying extroverts from a distance. “I was a loner and in that sense I strongly identify with Shutu. So often, it’s only the person with the loudest voice who’s heard. It’s fascinating the way some people have more power and authority over others, just because we allow it. And why do we allow it? Because we have certain notions of leadership and authority, of masculinity and femininity,” she says. When she finds herself in charge, Sensharma remembers to lead on her own terms and always, like a girl. “The way people view leadership is problematic. A lot of women take on very stereotypically male traits of authority. They dress or behave like men. I don’t display those characteristics and I don’t think one should have to,” she says.
While scripting A Death In The Gunj, Sensharma was often advised to change the gender of her protagonist. It was expected of her, as a feminist, to write a very good woman character. Sensharma says she didn’t consider it for a second. First, because this was always the story of a boy, and second, because, “The way men and women behave is interlinked. So if you’re trying to understand women, it’s equally important to study masculinity.” The big villain when it comes to equality of the sexes, she explains, is patriarchy. Its victims, however, are not just women. “There are a lot of men who are trapped too because they have to conform to stereotypical notions of what is considered masculine. It’s really about conformity. [We are all] expected to fulfil certain roles within a family, within a community, within a larger society. But what happens when somebody can’t? If it is limiting them or hurting someone else? These are things I find interesting and I don’t explicitly talk about them in the film, but I hope they are part of the takeaway.”
For Sensharma the actor, it has been business as usual. In 2015, she delivered two talked-about performances in Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar and the viral short film Nayantara’s Necklace. Last year, she played a pregnant cop in AR Murugadoss’ Akira and a furtive mum-of-three in Alankrita Srivastava’s festival-touring Lipstick Under My Burkha. She’s nurtured a steady, prolific career that’s spanned 16 years without making compromises that would mortify her younger self—an opinionated St Stephen’s grad with no tolerance for hammy cinema.
Choosing respectable indies, ensembles and Bengali features over choreographed dancing, Sensharma only turned mainstream heroine for grown-up parts in films like Wake Up Sid (2009) and Luck By Chance (2009). She says, “I was a bit of a snob; I still am a bit of a snob. I don’t want to do anything that I absolutely don’t like. I mean, I have done films that I didn’t fully believe in, but that’s because acting is my line of work. I also have financial goals.”
Sensharma bagged critical acclaim very early on, with two National Awards—for Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002) and Omkara (2006). So what dream has she been chasing all these years? Nothing really, she says. “I have never been ambitious at all. The goal was never to direct a film. This story and the issues around it compelled me to go the distance. I hate networking. I cannot bear to meet people for work and I hate talking shop. I’m ambitious about other things, like completing a book in a week,” she laughs.
Even without ambition, success appears to repeatedly find Sensharma. After doing the rounds of international film festivals like Toronto and Busan, A Death In The Gunj opened the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival last October, where Sensharma won the best female director award. Early reviews have been unanimously positive, confirming the arrival of a very promising new film-maker. Sensharma admits she is delighted, but wants to make it quite clear that she got here without pounding against any glass ceiling. “I come from a hugely privileged position. I’m an actor, people know my mother [director] Aparna Sen, so many doors were already open for me. I don’t know what it’s like for a woman who’s just graduated from FTII (Film and Television Institute of India, Pune), but I suspect it is not very good. One knows the statistics,” she says.
This evenness attends her personal life too. She’s raising her five-year-old on a strict schedule (“I’m almost military about his timings. I think a routine brings security, it’s something to fall back on”) and sees divorce for what it is: a way for two people to be happier than they were before. “Some relationships come with a life span. Not that any marriage or any situation in life can give you unending, sustained joy. The nature of life is cyclical, with ups and downs,” she says.
Sensharma is noncommittal about a second full-length directorial venture right now. It would take a similarly inspiring story to get her on that rollercoaster again, she says. For now, she’s just enjoying the thrill of achievement, as much as her good sense will allow her. “What people are thinking of me today might be different from what people think of me tomorrow, which might be different from what they were thinking of me yesterday. I would rather not pay attention,” she says. “One must also learn to be happy in life, generally.
Image courtesy: Omkar Chitnis