Good stories do not escape Konkona Sen Sharma. She always has her eyes and ears open. Once, at a dinner, a friend told her the story of how she came home early with a migraine to discover her help in bed with a man. “I immediately asked her if I could use this,” says Konkona. This anecdote later became the premise of a short film she directed for Lust Stories 2, the sequel to Netflix’s Emmy-nominated anthology. In The Mirror, Ishita (Tillotama Shome), a single, career woman, chooses not to confront Seema (Amruta Subhash). Ishita’s bedroom doubles up as home for Seema, and afternoon sex with her husband Kamal there has become a part of Seema’s daily schedule. Ishita begins to hide behind a plant in her living room and watch Seema and Kamal in the mirror. Voyeurism soon becomes a habit.
“When I was asked to do this film,” says Konkona, “I realised I wanted to complicate lust and make it interesting. Lust is not as celebrated as love because it constitutes forbidden feelings. It was nice to observe lust alongside other things that are forbidden to us.” Seema likes that Ishita is looking. She does not bolt after seeing Ishita waiting on a stool. Seema, instead, performs for her. “I made some conscious decisions as a director. The camera only enters the bedroom when Seema knows Ishita is watching. She invites us in. Performing, in a way, helps her orgasm.” The tacit permissions the two women give each other—Ishita lets Seema use her bedroom and Seema lets Ishita watch—allow each pleasure. There is something capacious in Ishita’s curiosity and there is spunk in how Seema responds.
Konkona says she was never interested in morality: “I love that the film is a cat-and-mouse game. They have both transgressed.” Guilt often becomes shame when met with an audience. When Seema finally catches Ishita looking with her shirt and trousers unbuttoned, she calls her perverse. Their divisions of class become conspicuous in Ishita’s outraged and angry defence. She lashes out at Seema and accuses her of wrongdoing and promiscuity. The confrontation is ugly and its impact brutal. “Some of the things that are said in that confrontation scene are very important to me,” says Konkona. “I wanted to look at our sharing of intimate spaces. Ishita does not even know where certain things are in her house. Seema washes her underwear. She pops in and out of her kitchen, doing multiple things at once. It is important that she says to Ishita, ‘Just because this is your house doesn’t mean you can say anything.’”
Precise and true
Power, feels Konkona, must not give people the right to behave in ways that are unethical. “It does not matter if you are a homeowner or a CEO.” Her interest in human behaviour, she says, is what drove her to make this film. “I was interested in what we allow and don’t. Through our conditioning, we learn what society prescribes how we are supposed to think, behave, and feel. I wanted to push all that and see what happens.” Konkona did not set out to make a film about class and desire. The themes emerged and intersected organically. “Usually, we only see bodies that are young, rich, and fair. We rarely see other bodies being allowed to feel pleasure. We never see them enjoy themselves sexually. Seema’s body, for instance, is one that is not looked at for pleasure, but she does enjoy being watched.”
Though Konkona does not want to discuss the male gaze—“that’s all that existed and that’s all that anyone ever talks about”—two other shorts in the Lust Stories 2 line-up bring it front and centre. Sujoy Ghosh’s Sex with the Ex and Amit Ravindernath Sharma’s Tilchatta are predicated on a sort of male desire that reduces women to hapless objects. Even though R. Balki’s Made for Each Other insists on sexual frankness, it seems more family parody than adult manifesto. The Mirror, in comparison, is the most accomplished and assured of the four films. It makes honesty an imperative.
“More “a working actor” than “career director”, Konkona says she will direct only on occasion, “when I feel very excited about sharing an idea, and also when direction is feasible”.”
Eventually, Seema and Ishita work through their discord. Affection and warmth triumph in the end. There is something cathartic about the way in which they transcend the rancour in their relationship. Konkona uses cinematic realism to chisel her film’s precision and arrive at human truth: “I’m trying to communicate what is truthful to me. Every moment should be truthful. You can’t let the suspension of disbelief slip, not for a second. You must keep making the film truthfully, so you can arrive somewhere.”
Speaking to Frontline over phone, Konkona admits she can be an exacting director. “I’m very particular about what I want. I have to imagine the whole film in my head. I have to hit certain points to reach other things. All that can get very exhausting for my cast, but I had a blast working with these two absolutely wonderful women and amazing actors [Shome and Subhash].” Konkona has directed Shome before. In A Death in the Gunj (2016), Konkona’s debut directorial feature, Shome plays Bonnie Bakshi, someone on the periphery of the film’s central drama—the unravelling of her young relative Shutu (Vikrant Massey). Even though Konkona had an ensemble cast to direct, she gave all her characters a narrative and interiority. We felt for Bonnie when her daughter disappeared.
- Konkona Sen Sharma’s new short film for Netflix, The Mirror, is an exploration of class and desire.
- Konkona admits she can be an exacting director.
- Konkona does not have to look far when thinking of women actors who have turned filmmakers. Her mother Aparna Sen is a ready point of reference.
Working with Aparna Sen
Based on a short story written by her father, Mukul Sharma, A Death in the Gunj is inspired by true events that unfolded in McCluskieganj, a hill station in Jharkhand where Sharma had bought a house with Konkona’s mother, Aparna Sen. “That story of Shutu was very close to me. It was based on true events that happened to my family. I was obsessed with Shutu. I had to make that film, but I really did not know if I would direct again.” Konkona did not return to the director’s chair in the interim because she never felt compelled enough, “and also because I was busy with my acting career, my son, and the pandemic”.
More “a working actor” than “career director”, Konkona says she will direct only on occasion, “when I feel very excited about sharing an idea, and also when direction is feasible”. Konkona does not have to look far when thinking of women actors who have turned filmmakers. Her mother is a ready point of reference: “Whenever I have to do the dub or edit, attend a post-production or budget meeting, I always have an image of my mum doing it. Because she has already done these things, they seem like a normal experience of life. They seem very much within the grasp of what is possible. She has shown me the way. I am standing on her shoulders, and like I have said before, it’s a great view from up here.”
“I have found that there’s no one way of being woman or man. ”Konkona Sen Sharma
Aparna Sen has directed some of Konkona’s memorable performances—Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002), 15 Park Avenue (2005), and Iti Mrinalini (2010)—but other women filmmakers have also brought out the best in her. Zoya Akhtar in Luck by Chance (2009), Meghna Gulzar in Talvar (2015), and Alankrita Shrivastava in films like Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (2019) have all used Konkona’s talent to explore their many iterations of femininity.
Women in Hindi cinema
In an interview she gave Harper’s Bazaar last year, Konkona said: “I don’t view myself as a woman. I see myself as being completely neutral. Gender is a taught concept that I don’t relate to.” Months after that comment went viral, the actor wants to set the record straight. “I was quoted out of context,” says Konkona. “I meant something else. There are times when I have to play parts where I have to be hyper-femme, or I have to be a woman in a kind of conventional or acceptable way. We might have learnt what is conventional, but whether we perform it or not often depends on how we’re feeling, our conditioning and our surroundings. I have found that there’s no one way of being woman or man.”
India’s film industries have transformed significantly since a four-year-old Konkona first faced the camera in the Bengali film Indira (1983), an Aparna Sen-starrer. “There are more women today, and there are better arrangements for them. Women were allowed to do make-up on film sets only a few years ago. There are now better facilities for women actors to change, etc. Some of that has changed but, yes, maybe not nearly enough.” Technology, too, has altered the way films are made and received. OTT platforms have changed the way we consume entertainment, and they have engineered a new candour.
In Geeli Pucchi, a short Neeraj Ghaywan had directed for the Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans (2021), Konkona plays Bharti Mandal, a factory worker whose lesbian sexuality and Dalit roots both hinder her social and professional progress. “I’d have never gotten that role in the theatrical or mainstream scheme of things. I am grateful to OTTs. They have provided a space where interesting content can come up.” But Konkona thinks it wise to curb some of her enthusiasm. “Someone always has power—first we had studios and distributors, then the multiplexes, and now we have OTTs. It is important that the relationship between us and them is one of respect and collaboration.”
“I love playing angry women,” says Konkona. “I feel it’s a way of giving voice to my inner rage, but I also like characters who are grey. I love playing characters who are going through some kind of transition, characters who start off in a certain way and then go on to change.” Not all the scripts she gets ticks these boxes, but Konkona feels lucky to have been trusted with “some very nice ones”.
Soup, a web series in which Manoj Bajpayee plays her distrustful husband, is expected to release this year, and the actor hopes that after winning the Kim Jiseok Award at the Busan Film Festival in 2021, Aparna Sen’s The Rapist (2021) will soon reach audiences. “It is a powerful look at women, society, and marriage.”
Alankrita Shrivastava once said: “Konkona carries a whole universe within her. I don’t think there is any part she cannot play.” Konkona laughs when she is reminded of this: “I agree I have a whole universe inside me, but everyone has an inner life. If you have a rich inner world, you can dip back in from time to time and take what you need. And I doubt I can play any part, but it sure is fun to try.”