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

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