In Aparna Sen's The Rapist, Konkona Sensharma plays Naina, a Delhi criminology professor who survives a brutal rape and assault. Following the film's world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival, the mother-daughter duo spoke about working together for a fifth time and exploring ideas of toxic masculinity.
Anupama Chopra: You've done five films together. How has this actor-director relationship evolved since Konkona became a director herself?
Aparna Sen: Konkona did not don her director's cap while we were working. She knows that I am usually very particular, very finicky, like a perfectionist. On days when she found out that I was too tired to pay attention, she would sometimes quietly whisper into my ear, 'Ma, don't you think we should put in some more medicines on the (character's) bedside table?' And I felt terrible, I said, 'Oh my God! How did I miss that?' But that was because it was very exhausting finishing this film in 27 days.
Konkona Sensharm: We finished it two days ahead of schedule.
AC: So Konkona, were you the leading lady and assistant director?
KS: I don't think so. I like to think of myself as being part of the crew on films that I act in. I don't know if the crew members would agree, but I like to think of myself like that. I have acted in 50 films over 20 years, so I primarily think like an actor. I was a little more involved in my earlier films – 'Why are they doing this? They should not do this, this should be done.' But I slowly learnt to become more detached. So most of our discussions happen prior to the shoot. I am familiar with ma's style. As an actor, you work with different directors and each one has their own style. I don't have one particular way of working, I would like to think that I am fairly adaptable. I did not don the director's hat, I have no business to be doing that anyway.
AS: I don't do that even now when I am acting. Usually I put my director's hat away.
AC: You can't compartmentalise?
AS: I used to do much more directing as an actor, in my youth. I have funny stories that I will write about in my memoirs someday. My elder daughter Kamalini once said, 'Ma you've come back and are looking very tired. What did you do, ma? How was your day?' And I said, 'Oh, I just went and dressed up the set, then I wrote and re-wrote the script. Then I acted.'
I used to often find that when I wanted to do an action like, for instance, putting something away in a cupboard, that the cupboard door wouldn't open, because that's how it had been made. These are the little lessons that I learnt. I said, 'When I am making a film, the cupboard doors will open because the actors should be able to do their business with ease.' Konkona actually gave me some very good suggestions which I did incorporate.
AC: Many years ago When Shekhar Kapoor's Bandit Queen released, editor Renu Saluja told me that when she was editing that sequence in which Phoolan is lying in that shed and the door is opening and closing as more and more men are coming in to rape her – it kept her up at night. She said, 'I couldn't sleep just from the horror of that situation.' Are you able to disconnect as an actor?
KS: We had a lot of prep. We did workshops with this fantastic person, Kanishka, from Atul Mongia's team. Ma read the script and we had a lot of discussions beforehand. At that time, it was on my mind a lot. I've done quite a few intense roles before, but this was definitely up there. When you are shooting, it does not have that kind of effect. It's only when you watch it in totality, or when you are working on it or writing it, that's when it affects you the most. The process of shooting is so fragmented, it's so chaotic, you're just imagining most of the things half the time. You're shooting little bits, a little bit of the beginning, a little bit of the end, so you're never creating a complete experience. Some sequences were tougher than the others. When I had to lie on the ground in the field outside, it was tough only because it was dark, it was cold, there were mosquitoes. I wasn't actually experiencing it as a finished product.
When ma was writing it or when we were reading it, she would have these whole narrations and then we would have a discussion. During those workshops, we would focus on it for many days. At that time, it had much more of an impact on me. But not during the shoot.
AC: Konkona, you, in A Death in the Gunj, also looked at masculinity, and how these very narrow definitions what it is to be a man is brutalising not just women but (for) men also. Is that just a coincidence? Is it something that both of you respond to as storytellers?
KS: I had actually not set out to make a film about toxic masculinity. I had not articulated that in my head. I just knew this was the world around us and that is what I wanted to present. I hadn't meant to deal with depression or masculinity as such. I was asked why the protagonist was not female – we should stop telling female filmmakers what to do and what to write. And the problem was coming from men, so it needed to be examined. 99% of all violent crimes are committed by men. More men die by suicide than women. So I had not meant to start out that way, but I think ma and I have a shared worldview and experiences.