Saturday, 10 May 2014

Konkona Sen Sharma IFFM masterclass 9 May 2014

Konkona Sen Sharma at the lectern.

The first question you'll hear when a new face appears in Indian cinema is not "How's her acting?" but "Who's her parents?" 'Royalty' is probably the most accurate way to describe the handful of families who've dominated Indian movie screens for 100 years, the most famous being the Kapoors of Bollywood, and it's rare that a child born into such fame doesn't milk their family's fame for all its worth -- often to the detriment of movie audiences made to watch untalented progeny prove the limitationss of genetics.

Which makes Konkona Sen Sharma, who presented an Indian Film Festival of Melbourne masterclass last night entitled 'Arthouse vs Mainstream', a freak.

A wonderfully candid, bold and humble freak.

During an hour-long presentation that she insisted was not a 'lecture' but a recounting of her 34-year-old life's journey, the diminutive Konkona described an almost accidental rise to fame that could have easily seen her land in in "shallow and urbans" professions like advertising or journalism. Despite her mom being Bengali cinema legend Arparna Sen -- and despite making her film debut at the age of three (as a boy, no less) -- Konkona was at first apathetic about the opportunities provided by her lineage. She took film roles while in college more out of detriment to family friends than drive. Her first Bengali mainstream film was based on a "spectacularly bad" Hollywood film that eventually proved valuable in unexpected fashion: Konkona began to feel sorry for her character, discovering the importance of empathy when preparing for roles that are otherwise "best forgotten".

It was after dropping out of a "depressing" MA program that Konkona's acting career took off, beginning with 2002's 'Mr. and Mrs. Iyer'. Konkona revealed that her mom, who directed it, "tricked" her into taking the film's lead role, but she subsequently "really enjoyed the experience" of making it. The film was a major critical success and led to Konkona receiving a National Film Award for Best Actress. It was at this time she learned another important lesson: The more detached an actor is from a film set, the better his/her performance.

'Mr. and Mrs. Iyer' also set the template for Konkona's career: Finely crafted and critically acclaimed 'small films' with little starpower and, therefore, smaller production budgets. Konkona summed up the resulting wisdom as "life is hard when you make unconventional choices", a lesson she's no doubt had re-instilled across her 40+ films career. Halfway through the presentation I couldn't help but be amazed at how Konkona's film career was the very embodiment of a 'Arthouse vs Mainstream' masterclass, and how radical she must be received by peers for calling her Bengali films her "real children" (vs the others' "stepchildren") in an industry more obsessed with overnight box office receipts than quality cinema.

Especially refreshing in an industry rife with agent-mandated humility was the way Konkona described how doing a mix of arthouse/mainstream, Hindi/Bengali films was an "holistic experience". Coming from another actor's mouth these words could be met with skepticism but Konkona's obvious passion for creating an individual niche and following her own heart, whatever the cost, couldn't be denied.

I wish her luck on her continuing journey. And hope like hell she ends up in a director's chair and attains the power to share her vision WITHOUT COMPROMISE.

IFFM Director Mitu Bhowmick Lange with Konkona during a vibrant Q&A.

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