25 October 2009

The Reluctant Diamond: Konkona Sen Sharma

A profile I did for Tehelka

Konkona Sen Sharma may be cast again and again as the small-town girl seeking the bright lights, but in real life she has been the one pushing stardom away.

Several people walking past Kolkata’s Little Russell Street at 3pm on a Thursday slowed down to look at the striking young woman standing outside the New Kenilworth Hotel. Partly because her maroon silk sari wasn’t quite midweek afternoon wear, but also because it took them a moment to recognise the face beneath the heavy ’70s makeup and bouffant hairdo as Konkona Sen Sharma, Indian cinema’s favourite girl-next-door.

Konkona herself, taking a short break from the shooting of her mother Aparna Sen’s new film Iti Mrinalini, was characteristically unselfconscious. She might have been more comfortable in her usual loose kurta and capris, but the greasepaint is part of her life now, and she takes its irritations with the same unfussy equanimity as she does the accolades that have come her way since 2001, when she debuted in the Bengali feature called Ek Je Achhe Kanya (The Girl). But she hasn’t always been this calm about the process of acting in a film. “When I started out, I’d work myself up about why I was wearing this, or saying that... I was embarrassed about the whole thing.” Today, some 25 films down, she’s unruffled. “If I have to do something, I do it. I’ve become more detached, which is a more constructive attitude to work.”

Konkona’s relationship with the film industry has always been ambivalent. Having grown up with a mother who was both an extremely popular actress and an acclaimed director, she never thought of the movies as glamorous. At close quarters, they seemed to involve hard work, long hours and a certain professional instability. But there was simultaneously a fascination with cinema: being captivated by the Moscow Film Festival at nine, playing “directing games” with her mother at 12. Konkona was four when she played a little boy in a Bengali film called Indira (1983) and nine when mother Aparna Sen cast her in Picnic (1989). “She was so natural,” Aparna remembers. “Shabana [Azmi] said, ‘If you think she’s going to be anything but an actress, you can think again.” At 15, she played a ‘teenage stepmother’ in Amodini (1994), directed by her grandfather Chidananda Dasgupta, film critic and longtime friend of Satyajit Ray. But the more her mother suggested she think about acting seriously, the more she resisted. “When Ma and all said I was a good actress, I didn’t think they were being objective. And anyway, I have a tendency not to do what people tell me to do,” she laughs.

It was only in college, while doing her BA in English, that she discovered that acting could be fun. “I did plays with ShakeSoc [the St. Stephen’s College Shakespeare Society] and enjoyed myself hugely.” Then came Subroto Sen’s offer to play the psychotic teenage protagonist in his Ek Je Achhe Kanya. “I did it as a lark, I never really thought about it getting released and having an impact on my life. I’ve never thought that far ahead – I still don’t,” confesses Konkona. She shot for the film in the summer vacations (“St. Stephen’s was very strict about attendance”) and went back to college in Delhi. Meanwhile, the film had “become a hit and all”, and family friend Rituparno Ghosh, who had been “threatening to make a film with me for a long time” decided to cast her in Titli (2002). “That was very much a home production, with Ritu mama directing, Ma acting. It felt more like a holiday,” remembers Konkona.

The turning point came with Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002), written and directed by her mother. Aparna decided she would like her to play the central character of a young Tamilian housewife whose prejudices are forced to battle her humanity during a communal riot. Konkona was reluctant (suggesting that her mother cast a “real South Indian” instead) but Aparna made it into a project for her. “She sent me off to Chennai as a research assistant of sorts, to translate some dialogues and find out about costumes.” Konkona returned from Chennai completely immersed in the milieu and the character, and ended up enjoying the shoot. But she still wasn’t sure this was it. “I kept thinking I had to get a proper job, I’d look at the classifieds…” she trails off. “Then I won the National Award [for Best Actress]. After that, it wasn’t so easy to shift. I was getting offered interesting films: Amu, Page Three. And I’d never had another burning ambition. I didn’t really know how to do anything else.”

Konkona is grateful to acting for having given her a sense of purpose, but she seems to constantly guard against it taking over her sense of self. “It can be mindnumbingly boring,” she points out. “You’re just a live prop: someone else gives you your lines, tells you what to do, lights your face.” But films clearly fascinate her – she was once accepted into an undergraduate film studies programme at New York University (“but I didn’t get a scholarship and it was too expensive”), and in 2005 she directed a short film about two Kolkata pickpockets, called Naamkoron. She dismisses a question about whether she wants to be a director. “That’s like saying I want to be a novelist, it doesn’t work like that. If it has to happen, it’ll happen.” If holding a megaphone and telling people what to do holds no appeal for her, nor does putting on makeup to strut for the camera. What she finds interesting is how acting changes one’s relationship with one’s body, with the self. “I’m not a public speaker, I can be very shy. But if I can hide behind a camera, or behind a character, I’m fine.”

Childhood friend Padmini Ray Murray remembers her as “a mopheaded shy little thing” but “with big brown curious eyes… and a remarkable innocence”. When told that Padmini’s heart surgeon father “removed the heart” in order to operate, the 11-year-old Koko apparently said, “But if he takes out their heart, can they still love people?” “She stayed a child for a long time,” says Padmini, who laughingly describes Koko as “a late bloomer” in the sex and romance department, with long childhood crushes that remained unvoiced for years. “She still retains a childlike quality, a sense of wonder. But alongside it is a certain wisdom.” Aparna remembers Koko at seven, complaining that a friend was constantly borrowing and dirtying her favourite socks. “Why don’t you just give the socks to her,” suggested Aparna. “But if I do that, she’ll know I’m angry,” said the teary Koko. “And are friends more important or socks?”

At 29, Konkona is still as certain that what’s most important to her are the people in her life. Her mother, of course, has been a shaping influence, often pushing her in productive directions she hadn’t quite figured out for herself. Her father, science writer and journalist Mukul Sharma, created a sparkling childhood full of games and guitars and car trips. Her sister, Kamalini (Dona), is eight years older and was a second mother figure, especially after Aparna and Mukul separated. Konkona was seven. “But I’d rather have happy parents who’re apart than unhappy ones who’re together.” She’s now great friends with both her father and her stepfather, Kalyan Ray, who’s an English professor in a US college.

“For me, life is really about shared experiences,” she says with disarming simplicity. It’s a strange combination: an absolute honesty that somehow manages to steer clear of intensity; an uncomplicated, childlike sweetness that’s never cloying. “Even if she’s playing an intense character, she’s never terribly in earnest. That gives her a lightness of touch,” says Aparna. “But there’s no titillation in her acting. She never plays to the gallery.” Unlike her image, Konkona is rarely serious. The Hindi films that have brought her most into the public eye – Page Three, Laga Chunari Mein Daag, Life in a Metro, Wake Up Sid – have consistently portrayed her as the sincere small-town girl in the big city. “People cast her in Plain Jane roles, but I think she can be extremely sexy,” says Subroto Sen, who directed her in Ek Je Achhe Kanya. “It is a bit boring to constantly play earnest characters,” says Konkona. “I’ve done other kinds: in Mixed Doubles, or Dosar, for example, but they’re rarely watched.” Konkona herself is clear that her most challenging roles are in her mother’s films: Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, 15 Park Avenue and now Iti Mrinalini, where she plays a 1970s and 80s Bengali actress. “Mrinalini’s manner cannot be as direct as mine today. It’s a challenge, because I’ve always had a resistance to playing characters who’re coy or helpless or docile: these emotions are alien to me.”

Konkona's forthrightness seems difficult to preserve in the Mumbai film world, where appearances must be kept up and occasional social games played. But she seems to have settled nicely into her new Mumbai life. She and boyfriend Ranvir Shorey — with whom she seems very much in love — have bought a flat in Goregaon. They spend their free time watching films they like, or hanging out with friends. “The only industry people I’m friends with are Sandhya Mridul and Tara Sharma [her Page Three co-stars] and Rajat Kapur, Vinay Pathak and gang,” she says. “Anyway, I don’t miss places that much. Wherever I live becomes Cal for me: I’m constantly telling people, ‘When you come to Cal’ while meaning Bombay!” It’s a vibe she carries with her wherever she goes – like her puchka spices from Kolkata’s Vivekananda Park and the Madhuban paan masala to which she’s “totally addicted” – quietly, gently, without the slightest fuss, but with an unmistakeable stubbornness.

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 43, Dated October 31, 2009

11 October 2009

The Aesthete


Age: 79

Profession: Hindustani classical vocalist, doyen of the Mewati gharana

Secret mode of doing riyaz: Switching on the television (on mute), laying out a game of solitaire on the bed, and then sitting down to sing

AMONG INDIA’s seniormost classical musicians, Pandit Jasraj may seem a venerable figure. He certainly seems to assume that role in public, raising both hands in a gesture of blessing as he strides onto stage. But Jasraj is keen to dispel such a notion. “People think I’m trying to be a sadhu or something, but it’s not that. That mudra is meant to signify an embrace of the god inside everyone. And I adopted it unconsciously.”

Jasraj attributes much of his calm and the power of his music to his unshakeable faith. “As a young man, I was a Hanuman bhakt,” he says. Now, it is Krishna to whom he feels deeply connected. There is certainly something Krishna-like about the man – a combination of playfulness and serenity that is appealing youthful. “Beauty is a form of the divine. A lovely young woman is like a half-blossomed flower. Sundarta ka aankhon se raspaan karna (letting the eyes soak in beauty) – that keeps one young.” Immaculately turnedout in public, Jasraj insists he is “bachelor-like” in private. “In my bedroom, I throw my clothes everywhere,” he chuckles. He admits classical musicians take time to deal with change. “But badlaav is life. Only that which adapts is alive,” he says. “I’m lucky my voice has changed very little with age. Yes, I can’t perform the miracles of my younger days, but I didn’t know then the karaamaats I do now.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 37, Dated September 19, 2009

The Viewfinder

A profile of Shyam Benegal for Tehelka's Elixir of Life issue.
Photo: Himmat Singh Shekhawat


Age: 75

Profession: Award-winning filmmaker credited with introducing ‘middle cinema’ in India

Secret worry: A young well-to-do generation that functions without a sense of history

SHYAM BENEGAL’s model old person is a contemporary of his mother-in-law’s. “She’s wonderful. She’s 93 and she travels entirely by herself, flying to California to see her son and then Europe to visit friends. She can discuss the latest movie, she loves gossip,” he says with genuine admiration. “You don’t have to make a special effort to include her in the conversation. That is how one would want to be.” But Benegal, who turns 75 this December, is realistic. “It’s not something given to everyone. So many things are not in your hands, just physically. But we human beings are blessed with one thing – optimism.”

“When you’re young, you certainly don’t see older people and think of yourself as them. Intimations of mortality are constantly there – it’s romantic and dramatic [to think of death]. But ageing is something people block their minds against,” he smiles. “Even now, I don’t see myself as ageing – only as adding years to my life. It’s only when one attempts to leap across a puddle that one suddenly feels, uh-oh, it’s not happening like it used to.” He blames his ulcers on a cavalier attitude when he was younger (“you know, who needs breakfast, and so on”), one he has since abandoned for a practical understanding of what he needs to avoid to stay healthy. Within limits, of course. “I still enjoy my drink and savour my food. I want to try out a new restaurant as much as the next person.”

A champion swimmer in his days at Hyderabad’s Nizam College, Benegal once captained his state team. Nowadays, he’s rueful about not exercising as much as he thinks he should. He tries to go for a walk daily, at the Mahalaxmi Race Course when he’s in Mumbai and in Lodhi Gardens when he’s in Delhi to attend the Rajya Sabha (he’s a nominated MP). But what really keeps Benegal fighting fit is cinema. After the success of last year’s superb Welcome to Sajjanpur, he’s now ready with Well Done Abba, “a political satire” inspired by two short stories (‘Narsaiyyan Ki Bavdi’ by Jeelani Bano and ‘Phulwa Ka Pul’ by Sanjeev). Well Done Abba has just travelled to the Montreal Film Festival, and releases in October. More than that, he’s excited about new filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj, and young writers like Ali Sethi.

“There are still so many books to read, movies to see,” he says. “Where’s the time to think about time?”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 37, Dated September 19, 2009

8 October 2009

The World On A Reel

From the unsettlingly intimate portrait to the panoramic film essay, the new Indian documentary no longer bludgeons its way to viewership.

IT IS THE fourth of January in Lachen village, north Sikkim, 10,000 feet above sea level. Jigme waits for the storm. “Shortly everything will be covered in snow. You will hear the ant breathe,” he says.” And sure enough, as we continue to watch Arghya Basu’s Death, Life, etc, we are transported from the many-tongued babel of Losar (the Buddhist New Year) to the unimaginable stillness of a man walking through fields of snow. We hear the ant breathe.

The power of documentary has long been misunderstood to be something akin to that of a drumroll: beat the drum loud enough and your message will reach its audience. But, in fact, its power lies in the conjuring up of alternate worlds – worlds no less real for being put on screen. The real attraction of documentary films may be that they give the viewer access to images she may not otherwise see – or if she sees, may not ordinarily look at. Sometimes this may be true despite the drumroll. As Satyajit Ray said of Sukhdev’s India ’67 (one of several films commissioned by the Films Division to commemorate the 20th year of India’s independence), “I like it, but not for its broad and percussive contrasts of poverty and influence, beauty and squalor, modernity and primitivity – however well shot and cut they might be. I like it for its details – for the black beetle that crawls along the hot sand, for the street dog that pees on the parked bicycle, for the bead of perspiration that dangles on the nose tip of the begrimed musician.”

Documentary has always been at the cutting edge of cinema’s relationship with the real. But if an older generation of documentary filmmakers were certain that they had a handle on reality, the current crop is equally certain that they don’t. Director after director speaks of the need to put oneself in the frame, of “transparent filmmaking”. While there is an unswerving admission that the filmmaker’s presence alters the quality of interactions, both in life and on film, there’s also a keen sense that the personalised narrative has somehow acquired a greater claim to truth in a world full of faceless information. The “subjective documentary” can range from the meditative, free-ranging cinematic essay (aka Death, Life, etc) to scrutinising the filmmaker- subject relationship (like Shyamal Karmakar’s I’m the Very Beautiful, an unsettlingly intimate but transformative account of the filmmaker’s on- and offscreen relationship with a singer called Ranu). The cinema, Godard said, is not an art which films life: it is something between art and life. The filmmakers profiled here are all striving towards finding their particular place in the middle.


Still from Listener’s Tale : Mahakala smiles

"He who writes the story seldom knows the tale it spins. Everyone except him has a tale when finally it relents,” reads one of the inter-titles in Arghya Basu’s film, Listener’s Tale (2007). The film’s title, too, is meant to underline Basu’s belief that the author is not so much a creator as a transmitter – he or she is a listener more than a teller. But the 38-year-old filmmaker has no illusions about being able to represent ‘the truth’. (He quotes Mircea Eliade: a true story in one place can be a false tale in another.) All he wants is to use the cinematic apparatus to explore the world. “The camera opens up a different mode of enquiry,” he argues. “It’s a machine. Like a microscope or a telescope, the world seen through it is a different world.”
Certainly, the world as it appears through Basu’s lens is both starker and more lyrical than it might seem in everyday life. Lichens turn ghostly grey on rocks, smoky clouds cover the mountains, tales of a blood pact between the Lepchas and the Bhutias “at the junction of epochs” create a Sikkim haunted by history. But just as you’re settling in for a beautifully executed slice of exotica, the music becomes electronic. Wires stretch taut across a city shrouded in mist, and shots of Gangtok town are overlaid with the tinny engaged tone of telephones. A self-declared “anthropological filmmaker” with an interest in the relationship of art to history, myth and philosophy, Basu’s Listener’s Tale (2007) and Death, Life, etc (2008) create a stunning Sikkimese landscape in which the bare bones of trees are as crucial as the lines of television antennas. “Are those beliefs that have survived for centuries more true, or the modernity that threatens to efface everything? I don’t know. But I think it’s a problem to keep chronologising. Things co-exist.”

Basu, who teaches at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), is inspired by cinematic giants like Godard and Cocteau. He is driven not by a desire for documentation but by the poetry of the image. “I don’t want to be part of this myth of the real that documentary perpetuates. I want a cinema that will create memory.” Amid the excitement about fresh work in documentary in India, Basu sounds a note of caution – or several. He accepts that more documentaries are being made – even being watched – but worries about where we’re headed. “Finance doesn’t only encourage, it is also an auto-censor. The foreign funders coming to India want only “current affairs”. There’s not enough critical interest in life itself.” Other funders promote what he disparagingly calls “keyhole cinema”, demanding a certain intimacy with the subject. “When you’re paid for telling ‘the truth’, what kind of truth will you tell?”


Rajula Shah’s journey has been what she calls a “reverse” one. Her immersion in the world of cinema at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), where “everything is geared towards making features”, led to a diploma film about a small town couple called Do Hafte Guzarte Do Hafte Nahi Lagte (2000). “But even while working with fiction, I had the experience of non-fiction – working with actors, thinking about what they bring to the film, or even myself, my role.” And now, as she works in nonfiction she is constantly assailed by its fictional elements. “People perform for the camera.”

Not that the 35-year-old from Bhopal is uncomfortable with the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction. She is completely aware of herself as threading together the film narratives she creates, sometimes as sutradhar and sometimes as a character. But she’d rather think of it as a dialogue with her artistic subjects. “It’s interesting to see where I come in [for the people I’m filming], and where I go out.” Often, she gets people talking to her by acting the idiot. Like during Sabad Nirantar (2008), which takes a cinema verité approach to the popular living tradition of Kabir poetry in Madhya Pradesh, “I would often ask stupid questions, like ‘If God is inside you, then why light this joss-stick?’”

In her first film, Beyond the Wheel (2005), Shah explored the worlds of three women potters – one in Kutch, one in Manipur and one in Bhopal. “I was interested in the prohibition that exists on women handling the potter’s wheel, and I found that all three had evolved their own embodied responses.” If Sara Ibrahim had devised a complicated arrangement of bowls in place of the wheel, Nilmani Devi substituted the wheel with her body, running around the object she’s making.

Shah’s persistence led her, in Sabad Nirantar, to work backwards from established folk performers like Prahlad Singh Tippaniya to agricultural labourers whose relationship to the music went deeper than the aesthetic. She’s now exploring the possibility of future fictions. “I’m interested in how a story develops over time. So why not?”


Nishtha Jain likes looking at people. But more than that, she likes to look at herself looking at people. From exploring the photographic fantasy portraits people create for themselves in her first film, City of Photos (2005), to viewing the city through the eyes of security guards and ragpickers in her recent At My Doorstep (2009), her work has been about questions of image-making and agency. “I’m interested in people sidelined by the mainstream media,” says Jain, “But I’m not giving people agency by filming them, only recognising the agency they already have.”

The Mumbai-based director’s much-talked-about Lakshmi and Me (2008) has been her most challenging work on these lines, telling the story of her relationship with 29-year-old Lakshmi, who works part-time as a maid in her house. “I started filming Lakshmi because I was attracted to the strong sense of self of this girl who’s been working since she was 10,” says Jain, “Later I began to feel that the film’s true subject was not Lakshmi, but her relationship with me. I wanted to tell her story but I also wanted to think about taken-for-granted hierarchies, between employer and domestic help. I could not honestly exclude myself from the frame.” Jain insists, however, that the film was “subjective, not personal”. She acknowledges that a single-person narrative draws audiences in more easily. “It’s more dramatic. Viewers remarked on how good an ‘actress’ Lakshmi was!” But Jain doesn’t want a repeat yet. In At My Doorstep, she ‘zooms out’ on a similar question, of people who seem invisible to the elite. “But it’s less intense, more poetic, more impressionistic.” In the end, it’s the kind of story you feel you want to tell. “You must feel passionate to stay with it for a long time.”


Paromita Vohra is not just a maker of documentaries, she’s a fan. “I’d rather watch an Indian documentary than an Indian fiction film any day,” she pronounces. “The skill and the ideation levels are so high. And in India, there is very little ‘formatting’ of the kind that has taken place in Western documentary.” It wasn’t always like this. Mumbai- based and self-taught, Vohra remembers starting out when the primary received idea of the documentary was the social issue film. “I struggled to find a different language, to make the kind of film I wanted to see.”

Preaching, Vohra was clear, wouldn’t help her in her desire to get fence-sitting audiences to reevaluate their stock ideas. So she set out to create films that would. Her now-classic Unlimited Girls (2002), which takes viewers on a hilarious but often scathing journey through feminist organisations, marital homes and college fests, has been shown at many festivals but more importantly to Vohra, now gets used as a teaching aid. “I met this woman from a [Hindi-medium] college in Lucknow, and she said they use it to trigger discussion. I said, but it’s in English! And she said, oh, we just pause and translate. It works beautifully.”

Now eight films old, Vohra takes both pride and pleasure in subverting documentary’s “tendency to be high-minded”. She believes films work primarily in a sensory way. “If I make you feel a certain way for a while, I might get you to think differently. I make performance pieces. I refuse people the comfort of their preconceptions.” Vohra’s eye for the absurd surprises those who enter documentary screenings with their most serious faces on. People find themselves giggling at the bizarre explanations men in Q2P (2006) give for why there are less women’s toilets, or laughing out loud in Unlimited Girls when girls in a college choreography insist they’re equal to the boys “but it’s the pompoms that are most important”. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t also thinking. That keeps Vohra happy.


Documentary is about reality,” says Sourav Sarangi. “Not a reality show.” There is a sudden sharp undertow to Sarangi’s otherwise mild manner as he says this. One immediately wonders if it stems from a reluctant intimacy with the rehearsed realities of television, a medium in which he has worked intermittently since 1988 – as an editor, as a director of tele-films and as head of the popular Bengali channel Aakash Bangla. For the 1964-born FTII graduate whose film Bilal (2008) has been shown at over 40 film festivals worldwide and won eight awards, his television self has always been the shadowy doppelganger, the life choice that wasn’t quite a choice. “We could dream of cinema, but after leaving campus we had to first ensure survival,” he says wryly.

Later, some of these dreamers formed a cooperative, with whose support Sarangi embarked on his first film, Tusu Katha (1996). Tusu is a festival in the tribal-dominated areas of West Bengal and Jharkhand. Determined not to simply recreate “local colour”, he attended the ritual four times in four different places. “The women sing and dance, but it’s not a performance,” says Sarangi. While he set out to “explore the rapture of life among people who don’t have the luxury of celebration”, Sarangi knew Tusu wasn’t characteristic of everyday life, so he kept going back through the year.

This unhurried pace, this loving embrace of the ordinary, characterises Sarangi’s second film Bhangon (Erosion) (2006) as well. With each film, he tries to understand something unfamiliar. Bhangon is about people who live along the Padma river, while Bilal is the result of his year-long relationship with a three-year-old and his blind parents Shamim and Jharna. “When I first saw Bilal, he was eight months old. I watched him communicate with me visually and with his mother through touch. I was amazed. He was living simultaneously in two worlds: the sighted and the non-visual.”

That sense of wonder makes Bilal very different in tone from the sob-fest you might expect. The dingy room in which the family lives, the high level of noise, the shockingly normalised violence: none of these are papered over. There are moments when the helplessness seems palpable, and others full of quiet irony, such as when Shamim, having been forced to shut down his phone booth, contemplates other livelihoods, says, “A damp room is all you need to grow mushrooms”. But like in life, desperation co-exists with joy. The film is a layered portrait of a child, a family and a neighbourhood. “It’s not a guided tour I’m taking the audience on,” says Sarangi. “A film isn’t complete till it’s seen by another person.”

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 40, Dated October 10, 2009