Spending a month losing myself in the two-decade-strong artistry of Konkona Sen Sharma has been the personal highlight of a bleak year. Film critics don't enjoy doing "trending" listicles, but in this case, it feels like so much more than that. For one, the foremost Indian actress of our times is always trending even when she's not. With the barriers between commercial and parallel cinema more porous than ever, Konkona's legend is now democratic, legitimized and cemented without labels. I'll admit it took an astonishing turn in a Netflix anthology to trigger this long-overdue deepdive into the filmography of a performer whose talent we've often taken for granted. Secondly, anybody who has even mildly followed her remarkable career knows that the ranking itself is incidental. It's just an excuse to write about sustained excellence. And thirdly, I can't think of too many actors and actresses in this prolific millennium with not a single sub-par performance to their name. It's true. No, not even Dil Kabaddi and Aaja Nachle. Come at me.
Hindi cinema took a while to "figure her out" and stop pigeonholing her as the cultural outsider. But her baby steps in Bengali cinema were an accurate indicator of a staggering range. You know the frightening part? A Death in the Gunj is evidence that acting may only be Konkona Sen Sharma's second strongest suit. After having watched her terrific directorial debut back in 2017, I could swear she was an integral part of the cast. (She wasn't). Such is her stranglehold over a visual medium that – despite a gold-blooded lineage – she has inextricably made her own.
On that note, here are 15 outstanding Konkona Sen Sharma performances across languages and formats, ranked in ascending order. You know the frightening part? 15 is not nearly enough.
In another lifetime, Kangana Ranaut and Konkona Sen Sharma played flatmates in Anurag Basu's multi-narrative drama. While the former owned a typically tragic role, Konkona had a blast leading the romantic-comedy part of the omnibus. As a 20-something professional desperate to get married and wading into the match-making pond, Konkona's timing is immaculate, yet never quite bereft of the pathos she brings to urban India's unseen stories. She looks perpetually bemused, but also confident of herself as the big-city girl yearning for domestic bliss. Her oddball chemistry with the late great Irrfan remains the most disarming aspect of a star-studded film – and appropriately so, given that the two went on to become the finest Indian performers of a generation. Rarely have two legacies so equally matched – and identically placed – shared the same screen space.
Konkona Sen Sharma's official debut (!) in Subrata Sen's thriller mirrored Alicia Silverstone's barnstorming Hollywood debut in The Crush. Over the decades, it's been established that there's no better way to make a splash than to play a deluded young psychopath. Konkona's flashy and eye-catching role – that of a teenager violently crushing on an older tenant – defines the creative fearlessness of a nascent career, even if it appears to be at odds with the knotty coming-of-age syndrome she eventually went on to symbolize. She turns her character's trademark choker into more than a sinister allegory, and despite the superficial curly-haired typecasting, Konkona's eerie gait distinguishes her part in an era of iconic deranged-lover stories. Her second film, Rituparno Ghosh's Titli, became a spiritual sibling: a necessary, experienced and worldwise update of Ek Je Aacche Kanya. And there was no looking back.
Kannan Iyer's supernatural drama is a tale of two disparate halves, but I remember being scarred by Konkona Sen Sharma's Diana the 'daayan' – a witch in the guise of a mystifying commoner. Given that she is viewed through the eyes of a suspicious child, Konkona is wickedly smart as the two-faced stepmother from hell. The first half of the film – one of the most intriguing first halves of the sparse Hindi-language horror movie ecosystem – is all Diana, punctuated by a lilting "Ready or not" in a doomed hide-and-seek game. Even though she barely appears in a second half dominated by Huma Qureshi and Kalki Koechlin, Konkona's 'spirit' filters through most scenes, reminiscent of the unhinged Bengali-language characters she started her career with. The few flashes of her towards the end reveal a subtle change of energy, a result of finally being seen through a haunted adult's perspective. Suffice to say Konkona "let her hair down" here, in more ways than one.
In the Vishal Bhardwaj-written Talvar, Konkona nails the ambiguity of grief as the mother in the dramatized version of Noida's infamous double murder case. By account of the Rashomon-effect script structure, her Nutan Tandon wears three separate faces, but without quite sacrificing the pathos of motherhood at the altar of narrative mystery. Her eyes speak volumes opposite her numbed husband – straddling the bridge between upper-middle-class hypocrisy and protective angst – especially in the "guilty" offshoot of the whodunnit. It's an understated but deeply intelligent performance in an understated but intellectually rewarding film.
For better or worse, Konkona Sen Sharma's first mainstream Hindi film role became a primer for future Bollywood directors on how to channelize the actress' talent by eschewing the trappings of a lead "heroine". As an entertainment journalist and Mumbai newbie in Page 3, Konkona's face is a montage of wonder and disillusionment – a wide-eyed template that she went on to own across her early Bollywood acting career without making it seem repetitive. Her 'outsider' perspective became a prism through which audiences in the noughts confronted different facets of the big city: journalism, the film industry (Luck By Chance), the writing dream (Wake Up Sid) and companionship (Life In A Metro). Not to mention the fact that Page 3 – directed by glory-days Madhur Bhandarkar – was a rare female-driven potboiler that opened the solo floodgates for the likes of Vidya Balan, Priyanka Chopra, Kangana Ranaut and Alia Bhatt.
If Mr. and Mrs. Iyer planted a naive Konkona character in the middle of communal strife, Amu is based on a curious Konkona character learning that her roots emerge from a history of communal violence. Shonali Bose's debut is centered on an NRI named Kajori Roy, whose exoticized gaze of the India she visits is upended by a revelation of her true lineage. The actress wears a starry-eyed (as opposed to wide-eyed) look, confronting all the sights and sounds of her birth land, but this time as an immigrant discovering the tragedy of her real identity. She does a wicked Bengali-American accent, equipped with a camera, a comrade and a burning desire to search for something she isn't sure of. The continuity of the "aha moment" that Konkona has visually mastered over time is on full display in Amu – and goes hand in glove with her typecasting as a stranger being flung into the deep end of a peripheral culture.
In a fantastic film about films marked by sibling debuts (Zoya as director, Farhan as actor), it was Konkona who quietly hijacked Luck By Chance – both as performer and character – while we focused squarely on the 'hero' and his soul-selling journey. As the struggling tinseltown starlet Sona Mishra, Konkona's curious and dignified turn ensured that the meta depth of this role wasn't lost upon audiences. She plays a small-town girl who faces rejection in her pursuit of the Bollywood-heroine dream due to her "unorthodox" looks – the antithesis of Konkona's own journey beyond her Bengali film heritage into Mumbai's commercial conscience. Her steady rise as an actress has been a watershed moment for a film industry notorious for its reduction of artistic ambition to skin colour and vital stats – and has coincided with new-age Bollywood's recognition of merit and diversity.
Saif Ali Khan's Langda Tyagi stole the limelight in Vishal Bhardwaj's haunting adaptation of Othello. But it's Konkona's Indu Tyagi – the wicked antagonist's wife and the tragic protagonist's sister – who struck a telling blow in terms of the film's form and the visceral Shakespearean tone. Torn between bloody love and bloodline, Indu's character is a desperate hybrid of brother Omkara's naive loyalty and Langda's ruthless ambition. Konkona's performance is startling in its balance of shades. She is an inseparable part of the background in pursuit of her own film – her agency is a consequence of blinding desire, and she shines as the only truly grey and layered character in an environment of distrustful extremes.
An assured Konkona streamlines the mercurial restlessness of Alankrita Shrivastava's NCR-based premise as Radha "Dolly" Yadav, the least 'cinematic' character of the lot. Dolly is the wife of an entitled man, the mother of a sensitive (cross-dressing) boy, the cousin sister of Bhumi Pednekar's over-reaching young protagonist, and a middle-class-migrant dreamer seduced by the promise of Noida's concrete jungle. Despite all these identities of Indian womanhood, she is yet to feel like a woman. Konkona clicks through the gears of slow-burning enlightenment: from her early marital denial and her spats with a sister she envies to her tender sex scenes with a young Muslim lover. Hers is a genuinely heterogeneous turn – fraught with the mundanity, insecurities, contradictions and courage of a belated coming-of-age journey.
I watched this film as a 16-year-old, only months after the Gujarat riots had prompted my father to move us away from the communally volatile darkness of Ahmedabad. As a result, the visceral fear in the bus of Mr. and Mrs. Iyer hit me at a different level. The premise of a bloodthirsty Hindu mob invading the bus to kill Muslim passengers was hardly fictional: I had seen it, first-hand, earlier in the year. This was also my first sighting of Konkona as an actress – ironically as a mild-mannered and sheltered 'Tam-brahm' woman flashing her husband's surname. Despite the film's stilted dubbing, Konkona's sense of awakening – from a prejudiced Hindu to a grateful human – stayed with me. The desperate tenacity of her eyes when she plonks her son onto her Muslim co-passenger's lap is a mark of uncanny emotive control. I didn't even know her name back then, but I sensed I'd see more of her. Her journey towards becoming the symbol of Hindi cinema's quintessential Mumbai newbie ran parallel to my own integration into the bustling metropolitan. Her face was the new "establishing shot outside VT station," but it's the bus that brought us there.
Say what you will about Alankrita Shrivastava's unsubtle leaps of feminist faith, there is little doubt about the unsettling symbols of womanhood she creates. Merge this with Konkona's masterful understanding of gender oppression, and we get Shireen Aslam, one of the more difficult Indian performances in recent memory. A burkha-clad housewife who secretly works as a saleswoman, Shireen's trysts with her abusive husband – featuring marital rape, lovelessness and a constant stripping of confidence – are also quietly indicative of a kind of hormonal chaos triggered by multiple abortions, contraceptive assault and unprotected sex. It's a sort of unwritten, unacknowledged character trait – unobtrusively fashioned by the actress in a way that allows viewers to divert their appreciation to Ratna Pathak Shah's film-stealing performance.
In Rituparno Ghosh's Titli, Konkona Sen Sharma emerged as the titular Bengali teenager obsessed with a film actor (Mithun) who fatefully shares a ride with her to the airport. This exquisitely tempered film unfurls as a grown-up version of the Bollywood "obsession" template (where the fan turns toxic in pursuit of her dashing idol.) The subversion is disarming: Mithun is a Bollywood superstar, he's shooting for a cameo in a Fardeen Khan movie, and Titli's mother's name is 'Urmila'. Given that this is one of Konkona's earliest turns, her face is a riveting canvas of adolescence. Remarkably, she essays the role on two overlapping levels: as a girl disappointed to discover that her mother (real-life mother Aparna Sen) is her "competitor," and as a supporting character struggling to fathom that she isn't the protagonist of this film. Much of her deceptively physical performance – in a conversational script – plays out when she's a silent onlooker in a frame, when her head reacts, or when she overhears the adults and their nostalgic moods.
The finest Hindi film performance of 2021 (so far) belongs to a striking short from a middling anthology. Neeraj Ghaywan's Geeli Pucchi is by far the most accomplished of the four Ajeeb Daastaans segments, largely because Konkona Sen Sharma delivers a profoundly complex performance as Bharti Mandal: a queer Dalit factory worker confronting the intersectionality of caste, class, gender and sexuality at once. Rarely has an Indian actor conveyed so much with so little – agency, voice, expression, privilege – at her disposal. Her body language is the clincher, making for a rare instance where an artist is almost unrecognizable without prosthetic aid. She circumvents the aura of cinema's standard 'butch' prototype to reveal her masculinity as a wounded survival instinct – in the process allowing the film to frame Bharti as a driver of fate rather than a victim of hate.
In both Titli and Dosar, the late Rituparno Ghosh frames the actress as a soulful and reluctant 'third wheel': a girl who belatedly discovers that she has been a peripheral presence to a central story all along. The black-and-white Dosar, too, is about her by not being about her. The character, Kaberi, has her illusion of marital bliss shattered when her husband (Prosenjit Chatterjee) gets injured in a fatal car accident with his lover. The 'other' woman dies, and Kaberi is soon left with a grieving and broken man. Consequently, she is torn between feeling betrayed and bereft. This intricate balance jumps out in an early hospital scene where Konkona's Kaberi can't hide her bitterness despite her husband's precarious condition. Her tone becomes sarcastic and caustic, aimed to soothe her own wounds over his. Yet, the unnatural restraint of her arc – from resentment to acceptance to empathy to love – is what distinguishes the role from the loud anguish of wronged on-screen partners. The film-making refuses to imitate her emotions, instead trusting the performer to convey the muted noise of a disillusioned companion.
For a career as storied as Konkona's, it's futile – almost unfair – to measure one performance against another. But maybe it's no coincidence that two of her most vulnerable turns have come under the tutelage of her mother, film-maker Aparna Sen. In the English-language 15 Park Avenue, Konkona owns the sort of go-for-broke role with an unhinged docility that aspiring actors often dream of. As a schizophrenic young woman at odds with her nervy environment, the actress resists the on-screen perception of "madness" to deliver one of the more calibrated portraits of mental illness in Indian cinema. The character of Meethi occupies a parallel universe – victim, dreamer, not survivor – never once succumbing to the tenderness of her caregiving family for the sake of a movie narrative. The few flashbacks of her as a 'normal' journalist are testament to Konkona's shape-shifting trauma: one that eschews the aid of visual gimmickry. It's also the kind of role that might have gone horribly wrong in the hands of a lesser artist.
Wake Up Sid: Konkona's Aisha Banerjee remains one of the most pragmatic and wholehearted big-city newcomers in commercial Hindi cinema.
Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota: Naseeruddin Shah's 9/11 multi-narrative is led by Konkona's affecting turn as a woman in a cross-cultural, long-distance marriage.
Goynar Baksho: Aparna Sen's ambitious period misfire is rescued by her daughter's generation-spanning turn as a gullible preserver of heritage.
Nayantara's Necklace: Jaydeep Sarkar's haunting short has the actress excelling as an urban tragic, a sort of low-profile companion piece to her Dolly Kitty role.