Storytelling is in her DNA. Her mother Aparna Sen is an actor and film-maker and her father Mukul Sharma, a writer and journalist. Konkona Sensharma herself started off as a child actor in her mother’s movies, landing her first major acting role just after graduation. The role in Sen’s Mr And Mrs Iyer (2002) earned Sensharma a National Film Award for Best Actress. Since then, she has traversed both commercial and art-house cinema in Hindi (including Page 3, Omkara, Luck By Chance, Gour Hari Dastaan: The Freedom File and Talvar), Bengali (Goynar Baksho, Shesher Kobita, Kadambari) and English (The President Is Coming, Mr And Mrs Iyer).

The new chapter in her filmography is scripting and directing her debut feature film. Set in 1979, the coming-of-age drama, A Death In The Gunj, which unfolds during a family vacation that goes awry, will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) next week.

Taking a break from the dubbing of the film a few weeks ago, Sensharma spoke about this new experience and the art of storytelling. Edited excerpts:

What was the genesis of ‘A Death In The Gunj’?

I had been hearing this story from my father since I was five-six years old. My father had written a short story on it. I was fascinated by it so I started developing it into a script, along with my associate Disha Rindani. After the first draft, we were selected for the NFDC National Script Lab, which was very helpful, and by the seventh draft I was ready to shoot. While writing the film, I became sure that I had to direct it myself in order to tell the story the way it needed to be told. A Death In The Gunj is based on true events, and includes many of my own childhood memories and my family’s experiences of spending holidays in McCluskieganj. The film is a part of my childhood and my identity. All the characters are shades of me, and an amalgam of my life experiences.

Why did you set the film in McCluskieganj, which sounds like a place that time forgot?

The history of McCluskieganj, its people and its role in my growing up years are all very interesting to me. Its original residents were Adivasis, and then it became an Anglo-Indian settlement, followed by an influx of Bengalis and Biharis. By the 1980s, it was no longer a mini England. The death in my title is also a metaphor for the dying of the Gunj itself. However, since the 2000s it has got quite a boost with the opening of a number of boarding schools.

My earliest memories of McCluskieganj, from when I was five-six years old, are of waking up early to visit this magical place where my grandparents owned a house.

Did you feel trepidation getting into the director’s seat?

I had directed a short film, Naamkaran, for the Kala Ghoda Film Festival before. That was an interesting experience, but I had not thought seriously about directing before this script. It was very organic and I did enjoy the process. A friend encouraged me to write the script. I would work for a few hours every day while my son was at school. The logical next step was to direct. And honestly, I would rather have burnt the script than given it to someone else. As for the nerves—well, even though I have grown up on film sets and am very familiar with the process, nevertheless it was very scary.

As a child, how immersed were you in your mother’s work and in the workings of a movie set?

I was very immersed. Since my childhood, I have been at shootings, dubbing, edits, and acted as a child. I have travelled to film festivals and helped out on set when needed. As a child, I especially loved the production and pre-production meetings that took place at home or in the office. People would be sitting in a circle with the script. I would sit in on the meetings and make my own budgets for my own imaginary film. Also, sometimes I would play director-director with my mother. We would call “start camera-action-sound". I always felt they were having so much fun. All these years of experience as an actor have made me very familiar with the environment.

In reality, while pre-production on my film was fun, it was more daunting and there was pressure on me to make decisions. Everyone is looking to you for answers constantly. But I enjoyed facing the obstacles and navigating around them with creativity.

Your film has a large ensemble cast (Kalki Koechlin, Om Puri, Tanuja Mukherjee, Gulshan Devaiah, Ranvir Shorey, etc.).

Yes, and managing all nine actors at the same time in one scene was not as easy task. When everyone’s together, there’s a great energy, but personally I love the more intimate scenes with one or two actors.

Everyone in the cast had read the script and knew their characters well; they knew what they had to do and how they fit. I was blessed with an extraordinary cast. We also had workshops, individual meetings and script readings. Most things were built into the script, but we also left enough room for spontaneity. For example, the shot of the moth seen in the trailer was incorporated after I found it while walking around. I felt it was beautiful, that it must be used in a scene.

Was your mother your go-to person for advice?

I had two-three go-to people, including friends and my parents. But also I trusted my crew and HoDs (heads of departments), who contributed so much. But my mother was always available, especially when I needed to check things about 1979. The first few days of shoot I spoke to her a lot—about costumes, or the merits of a wide shot. But we didn’t just talk about the shoot. We connect as individuals too—as women in the film industry, as mother-daughter, and as friends.

Your next appearance as an actor is in A.R. Murugadoss’ ‘Akira’. What attracted you to the action film?

I am terrified of doing action, of wearing a harness and jumping, etc. But what attracted me was playing a pregnant cop, which meant I did not have to do any action! I have also acted in Lipstick Waale Sapne, but besides that I have been very busy with A Death In The Gunj, though I am looking forward to interesting work, with a nice script and good people, coming my way.

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