Konkona Sen Sharma announced her directorial powers to the world through a seemingly innocuous moment in her debut feature, A Death In The Gunj (2018). A cook, scraping off every last bit of chicken curry in a utensil, licks the serving spoon before setting it aside. It’s a well- observed moment in a sublime film, lending humanity to this ‘peripheral’ character and indicating the sensitivity that characterises Sen Sharma as a director. She’s similarly immersed in the world of The Mirror – one quarter of Lust Stories 2 – which explores the unspoken desires of two women belonging to different classes. It’s another sharp-eyed film by Sen Sharma, in which she peeks into the messy crevices of ‘civilised’ society. The Mirror is only Sen Sharma’s second directorial credit — her acting credentials are far more storied. She was most recently seen delivering a sophisticated and nuanced performance in Neeraj Ghaywan’s queer love story Geeli Puchhi in Ajeeb Dastaans – but Sen Sharma has already established herself as a director to follow.
Having been approached by producer Ashi Dua to contribute one segment for Lust Stories 2, the idea of The Mirror came out of a chance conversation. “My assistant Disha (Rindani), who is enroute to becoming a director herself, and I were discussing the ‘watching’ of lust,” Sen Sharma told Film Companion. The actual story came to Sen Sharma when she was having dinner with some friends and one of them mentioned coming home to walk in on her domestic help with a man. “I immediately asked her if she would mind if I used it for my film. She just laughed and probably didn’t even take me seriously at the time.” Sen Sharma took this premise and fused it with her idea of watching. She didn’t want to get into the morality of watching or being watched because she found it too “boring”. “The idea was that both women had transgressed. I didn’t have to bother about how she did this, or the other person did that,” said Sen Sharma.
The Mirror stands out in Lust Stories 2 because of the clever and sensitive way Sen Sharma explores the voyeuristic gaze. There’s an edge of transgression in Isheeta (Shome) watching her domestic help Seema (Subhash) have sex with her husband Kamal (Shrikant Yadav), but the audience knows that Seema knows she’s being watched, which changes the equation. The sex in The Mirror doesn’t titillate. Instead, those scenes underline the longing and loneliness in Isheeta. The most erotically charged scenes in the film aren’t those in which Seema and Kamal are having sex, but one in which the camera focuses upon Shome’s face, recording Isheeta’s candid, wordless reactions to what she’s watching, and another in which Kamal realises his wife has a little streak of exhibitionism in her.
Especially since the film has terrific lead performances from Tillotama Shome and Amruta Subhash, one can almost imagine a messier version of the film if either Shome or Subhash’s characters were a man. Was that something Sen Sharma had explored with her co-writer Pooja Tolani? “Honestly, no. It came to me organically as a story of two women.” However, both Sen Sharma and Tolani did realise they might be a bit unfair to the character of Kamal (Yadav), which is why they included the scene in which he gently confronts his wife about keeping him out of the curious loop of unspoken understanding that Shome and Subhash’s characters have between them. “Shrikant Yadav has my whole heart,” said Sen Sharma. “I think Kamal is the conscience of the film.”
Sen Sharma isn’t bothered about being slotted as an OTT filmmaker or actor. As long as her projects find audiences and what she wants to communicate come through, it doesn’t matter to her whether the film releases in a theatre or on a streaming platform. As a viewer, she prefers watching films in theatres, but she also admitted that watching films on flights makes for an intense and intimate experience: “...It’s almost like being in purgatory,” she said.
With the prolific director and actor Aparna Sen as a mother – she is an icon of Bengali cinema and has some of Indian cinema’s most thought-provoking films to her credit — Sen Sharma has been through many phases before reaching the assurance of today. Sen Sharma’s filmography feels like five career spans in one. First, there are the early films she did with her mother, like Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002) and 15 Park Avenue (2006). Then comes the phase of the late 2000s when she starred in mainstream films like Life In A… Metro (2007), Wake Up Sid! (2009) and Luck By Chance (2009), followed by the dullest phase of her career so far, in the early 2010s, which still produced the formally inventive Goynar Baksho (2013). Sen Sharma rediscovered her mojo in films like Talvar (2015), Nayantara’s Necklace (2015), before making her directorial debut with A Death in the Gunj. The OTT era has marked her latest chapter, with films like Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, Ram Prasad Ki Tehrvi and Mumbai Diaries - 26/11.
During the early 2010s, Sen Sharma’s Hindi film career was probably at its most insipid. “Consistently getting good work is hard,” Sen Sharma said. Apart from starring in the polarising Ek Thi Daayan (2013), Sen Sharma did a slew of Bengali films like Aparna Sen’s Iti Mrinalini (2010) and Goutam Ghose’s Shunyo Awnko (2011). Also around this time, Sen Sharma became obsessed with a short story she’d heard from her father, journalist and writer Mukul Sharma. “My home was being renovated at the time, so I was living with him for a bit. One day, I remember I was just passing the dining table when the idea struck me that this could be a film,” she said, while talking about how A Death in the Gunj came about. Sen Sharma said she was fairly confident no one would want to make the film and even if it somehow did get bankrolled, she wasn’t hopeful that too many would watch it. This ended up freeing up her writing and shooting process, resulting in moments like the one in which the cooks licks the serving spoon, all of which make A Death in the Gunj a remarkably accomplished bit of storytelling, particularly for a debutante director.
Sen Sharma, who also wrote the screenplay, said she had initially tried to bring professional writers on board, but the people she approached suggested Sen Sharma herself was the best person to write it. After finishing writing, Sen Sharma sat on the script for a year and “half-heartedly” trying to shop it around. “After all the hard work, I instinctively knew that I would have to direct it. Also, there were many around me who were spurring me on,” she said. Whatever underlying hesitation she may have had at the time didn’t surface when she was finally on set and in the director’s chair.
The actor-director attributes a lot of her comfort on a film set to her mother. “I’ve had so much experience of being on set, since I was a child. I’ve been a part of production meetings, I’ve accompanied her in the dubbing suites, edits. Just being comfortable on a set, which can be so overwhelming and chaotic at times, is a massive advantage,” said Sen Sharma. “After that, it’s also the time I’ve spent there as an actor for over a decade.” For her, Aparna Sen stands out as a unique influence upon Sen Sharma’s work and life. “I’ve grown up with her as a template. When I’m writing, directing, dubbing, I already have an image of my mother having done it. So, it always feels like a possibility. It must be osmosis, I wasn’t even conscious of when or how I might’ve gleaned my skills as a director.”
Sen Sharma also fondly recollected gleaning about the generous nature of collaboration from late director Rituparno Ghosh, who helped her with her Bengali grammar. “He was extremely efficient, there was never a lot of stress on his set. I hope to have imbibed that from him.” While working with Ghosh on Dosar (2006), Sen Sharma remembers how Ghosh asked her if she would like to do the art design for the flat in which her character lives. “I was so young, and I was surprised how he treated me like an equal,” she remembered.
The surge of films and shows on streaming platforms has meant we could be seeing perhaps the most productive phase of Sen Sharma’s already storied career. However, with the range of roles comes the possibility of being slotted as an OTT figure. “I’m not terribly concerned with any of this,” Sen Sharma said, when asked about the label. “These are not areas that interest me. I have a very individualistic approach, I don’t quite know how to gauge what the industry wants, what the trends are.” She pointed out that before the OTT era, there had been a ‘multiplex era’ when she was told she was making films for the multiplexes, and perhaps a new descriptor would pop up in the near future. “There are people who are putting money, who view the product a certain way, and people who want to communicate ideas who view it a certain way – it’s an eternal conflict,” said Sen Sharma. “It’s good that it happens — then you can negotiate that space accordingly.”