Konkona Sensharma bemoans the skewed number of female filmmakers in the industry

The Omkara actress spoke to about the low numbers of female filmmakers, developing her directorial debut with her parents and watching the film for the first time at the Toronto International Film Festival.

(Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

Sonal Pandya

At the ongoing 47th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, actress Tannishtha Chatterjee talked on a panel discussion on women in cinema about wanting to do exciting work in her films — pushing boundaries and taking risks. She also called upon to change the narrative so that more interesting roles in cinema are created.

Creating interesting roles for women in pop culture important for change: Tannishtha Chatterjee

Actress Konkona Sensharma, who recently won the Best Female Filmmaker Award at the 18th Mumbai Film Festival held in October, talked to about the misrepresentation of women on and off the camera. She said, “I’m very honoured and grateful to have received [the award] but there were only six films directed by women. [It’s] a tragedy, which is why the award was instated to encourage other filmmakers, but it’s just so sad, it’s just six of us so it’s abysmally low.”

She lamented on the skewed numbers of male to female filmmakers. “Imagine if there had been only one instead of six. How would they have given the award?” Sensharma had two films at the Mumbai Film Festival, her own A Death in the Gunj and a strong author-backed role in Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha.

Konkona Sensharma in Lipstick Under My Burkha

When asked about the acting projects she must choose from, Sensharma said, “I was so grateful to have such a nice, nuanced, vulnerable, strong role after so long. [My character Shirin] is again very different from me. If you have characters that are well-written and scenarios which are well thought out and not just generic, it helps for the audience to connect also. Not just that the film about women [should] necessarily be good, there is no guarantee that just because it’s made by a woman that it’ll be good. Or that it’s about a female protagonist that it’ll be good, but at least they should be enough that one can pick and choose from, so that we get a more balanced perspective.”

Lipstick Under My Burkha review: Fine performances guide this well-written drama of women and their dreams

Sensharma journeyed from Toronto to Busan and finally back home to Mumbai, showing A Death in the Gunj at film festivals. Most of her family and friends saw the film for the first time at the Mumbai film festival. She spoke about the emotions and experiences of showing her film for the first time to an audience. “Toronto was really magical, because we just finished the film, I think just a couple of days before we were travelling so it was all very intense and rushed. It was madness. And then we were having the premiere in this stunning old theatre, the Elgin. I was watching it with an audience for the first time and they seemed to be involved with the film and then we had a question-and-answer session afterwards. It was gratifying, intense and quite unreal.”

According to an international sales head who attended the Toronto premiere at the Elgin which seats a thousand people, the director of programming at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Cameron Bailey introduced the film, comparing the film to an Anton Chekov play. Bailey spoke about his admiration for Sensharma's work as an actress and her amazing directorial debut.

After the film, filmmaker Mira Nair said that Sensharma “observed life so beautifully” and The Hollywood Reporter’s review felt her directing style leant more towards Satyajit Ray. Sensharma downplayed the compliments saying, “I’m happy that [The Hollywood Reporter] reacted positively, it’s better than if they had said it’s not good. I’m such a huge admirer of Mira’s films, I think she was just being kind. I sometimes worry that she’s just being encouraging. When I get good feedback a lot, I think people are just being nice to me.”

A Death in the Gunj, set in the year 1979, is based on a short story written by Sensharma's father Mukul Sharma. “I first heard the story from him, from his mouth, when I was [a child]. He used to tell it to me, amongst other stories. Both my parents are great storytellers, very charismatic. You can ask them to recount anecdotes and stories of their time or whatever. It really fascinated me for the longest time and much later, I was kind of thinking of developing it more. I was staying with him at that time because my house in Bombay was being renovated, so we used to discuss that a lot. And he helped me with a lot of how that screenplay developed, especially in the early days. Eventually, down the line, it’s funny because my dad or my sister would be like, because they’d read the script or hear from me and say, ‘But this was like this. This was that person’ and I’d be like, ‘Now it’s different, now it’s this’. This is the movie. That’s what happened. It’s just the crux of the story which is based on the short story or on the true events, the rest of it is fictionalised,” she explained.

A Death In The Gunj review: Konkona makes a promising debut

Sensharma also asked her mother, filmmaker and actress Aparna Sen, for advice during the making of the film. She said, “I think I must have pakaoed her so much because I was talking to her continuously. I mean, sometimes I would call her thrice or twice a day, then I’d be quiet for a few days and then again I’d start calling her once a day at least. And not just her, I called her the most. They were a few others, my dad and a couple of close associates I truly trust. But yes, I definitely called my mum for everything – depending on what stage I was at of writing or pre-production or shoot or edit, I would talk to her at any stage.”

The reason why it was so important to speak to her parents was because they were instrumental in helping her remake the memories of her childhood. “It was great to be able to discuss things with her, also because she has lived that. It was her house that my grandparents used to live in McCluskieganj. She’s been there on several of these trips and it’s me recreating my childhood or whatever I could remember of my childhood and my parents imagined youth.”

Their memories were helpful to Sensharma in her research. She said, “I would have to keep calling them also to say “So in 1979 in McCluskieganj, did you have telephones? And what would the phone number be? Would it be three numbers?’ Because a lot of this information is not easily available online, when you research 1979, you don’t know what’s happening in McCluskieganj. In Bombay or Delhi or Calcutta, you might get an idea of some stuff, you don’t know what’s happening in McCluskieganj. Memory, we realise, is such an unreliable entity and faculty, because my mother would remember something, my father would remember it differently, my sister who was 10 years old then, she would remember something else. The friends and family left in McCluskieganj still, they would say something. Not that everyone was constantly contradicting each other, but people remember things differently.”

A Death in Gunj’s large ensemble cast features Vikrant Massey, Kalki Koechlin, Gulshan Devaiah, Ranvir Shorey, Tillotama Shome, Jim Sarbh, Tanuja, Om Puri and Arya Sharma.