Konkona Sensharma interview, where the actor-director impresses upon her recent role as Bharati Mondol in Ajeeb Daastaans, talks about the male-female perceptions of authority and gets candid about what compatibility in a relationship looks like to her.
That she is an actor par excellence had received a universal nod years ago, when, with only countable Bengali releases under her belt, she rose to prominence at the turn of the new millennium. But with her latest, Konkona Sensharma has bumped the bar up so high that it now rests on a rung impossibly few may come close to touching, save her own self, of course.
In a freewheeling conversation with SheThePeople, Sensharma brings to the table what it was like delivering a raw, real performance as Bharati, a queer Dalit woman, in her most recent release, and how that ties in with so many intersectional existences that go unnoticed, unappreciated.
Sensharma, at length, also ponders on the uni-toned narrative that runs on and behind Indian screens, where authority is guided by masculine norms, where beauty operates on singular meanings and where relaying the baton of storytelling to diverse communities is significant to bringing representation to our cinema.
Bharati is a beautiful character but what’s striking is how rare she is on Indian screens. As an audience, there were so many layers to her to unpack. When you, as an actor, peeled those layers off from the inside, what did you find? How do you estimate her intersectionality?
Neeraj Ghaywan and Sumit Saxena have written a script that is so beautifully fleshed out and so detailed. It’s not just one aspect… because we all have several identities.
I always say I’m a mother, an actor, an Indian, a Bengali, an atheist, a woman.
We’re not operating on one identity, they all inform each other. Bharati’s character was not flat and because of the intersection of all these identities, there was a lot of nuance to the character which made it real and much easier for me to portray.
Why is there a lack of intersectional caste, class, gender representation in Indian cinema? Is there fear? Hesitation? Or something else?
We have normalised a particular kind of culture to be portrayed on mainstream media. There’s a very narrow range for acceptability – for example, what women are supposed to be like. Or the characters we depict on screen are often from dominant castes. That is the prototype, that is the template… but it’s an incomplete story.
It’s great that we are seeing Bharati Mondol – a queer, Dalit woman – as a protagonist. Because neither of these identities is represented very much on screen. She is someone from a marginalised community but at the same time is not projected as a victim. She has been given a lot of power, because of the gaze through which Neeraj looks at her. I felt very liberated, very empowered playing Bharati.
Bharati had the make of what people conventionally call a ‘tomboy.’ She worked in an all-male office, in a job that required manual strength. Do you feel a lot of working women have to assume a ‘masculine’ demeanour to be taken seriously in the workplace, to fit in?
Bharati’s behaviour and mannerisms were partly that, and partly stemming from her sexuality and choices regarding gender. It was not only because she was in a male-dominated environment.
Though I have seen that happening a lot. On film crews, and oftentimes when women are in positions of authority, they replicate a certain kind of authority. Because the way we perceive authority is a very stereotypical ‘masculine’ image that we have of what it should look like. Many times I find if there’s a female assistant director, for example, they will take on aggressive roles because that is how they are taken seriously, which says a lot about us – how we perceive authority and how we react to authority.
That’s unfortunate because that’s not the only way it can be done. Just like there is not one way to be a woman, there are many different and equally valid ways. But we see only a narrow range of depiction for that.
Watch: Konkona Sensharma interview on SheThePeople
The institution of marriage still has a stronghold in Indian society. It’s sacred, it’s forever. This was a theme in the movie and is a common experience for a lot of people in India still. Does this insistence on preserving sanctity deter women from walking away from incompatible marriages? Is it preventing divorce from being normalised?
There are so many different kinds of people and marriages in India, it’s hard to say exactly. But a lot of it is normalised. We just accept it all the time in marriages. Women taking on their husband’s surname is such a patriarchal custom. There are so many women artists through the centuries whom we have lost because they sometimes functioned under different names, for instance, before marriage and post-marriage. It becomes hard to find their work… and this is so normalised.
The key thing about people stuck in bad marriages, for women particularly, it’s very important to have financial freedom. Then you have choices, even if you want to stay on in a bad marriage for whatever your reasons may be. The worst thing is having to stay in a bad marriage because your economic options are limited.
Divorce is normalised in small sections of our society but not in a larger, mainstream way.
Bollywood is known for its fascination with female actors who fall into the bracket of the ‘tall, fair, thin’ standard. And women who fall outside of it, are often labelled in ways that sound patronising. Have you ever had these industry experiences up close? Any roles you may have been denied or which you may have rejected?
I wouldn’t know if people are not offering me roles because of the way I look because that may not be disclosed to me. I have usually turned down parts if the character or script or director didn’t resonate with me. I’ve turned down roles or film which I have not identified with or something I don’t have respect for – you have to find a reason to do a film.
I don’t think you will ever find a perfect film where everything is working for you. It’s very rare to come across a film that doesn’t have these issues… Geeli Pucchi to some extent I was lucky.
For example, I have curly hair but I’ve always straightened it. Because the mainstream depiction of ‘acceptable’ beauty is that… tall and slim and pale and delicate… So one is always pushing those boundaries or at least trying to become aware and push those boundaries. I hope that happens more and more.
You’ve directed as well, A Death in the Gunj. All women in filmmaking go through the experience of being called ‘female directors,’ instead of just directors. Does it irk you when you are referred to as a female director or do you think that such distinction actually gives recognition to women breaking the glass ceiling?
I would ideally love it if we would just say ‘film director.’ Like Neeraj says, you shouldn’t say Zoya Akhtar is the best female film director. She is a great film director overall.
But that’s in an ideal world. The films that are being directed are by dominant caste men, by and large. So, we have very little representation in that sense. Every time we say female filmmaker… if it’s inspiring or helping any people, then it’s great. Then maybe many women out there feel, ‘these women have done it and therefore I too have a chance and can do it.’
The bottom line is we have to have a 50-50 percent. Then we have different kinds of stories, not just men and women but also people from other communities. There are so many valid ways of living a life.
Unfortunately, what is ‘normal’ is what is depicted as normal. The template is usually upper caste, Hindu. But that is not normal in the sense that it is just one community and we’re under-representing other kinds of people and lives.
There are very few from the film industry who don’t mind putting out their opinions, thoughts, issues on social media. Is it fair or unfair for audiences to ask more celebrities to speak up, and speak up especially during times of social crisis, such as the one we are going through now?
Social media is not the only place these battles are being fought. It’s a very small section.
It’s a warzone on Twitter right now and I’m glad it has been a lifeline. It’s amazing when we’re able to form this kind of network and amplify each others’ voices… that’s the best part about social media.
It would be great if people who have a large reach and a large fan following on social media could help and amplify. Why some people choose not to do that, I’m not sure. But I would rather focus on other things… and hold people accountable. Particularly political leaders. They cannot be holding rallies at this point. It’s criminal negligence.