After her fascinating directorial debut film A Death in the Gunj in 2016, Konkona Sensharma is back with a short, The Mirror, in the Netflix anthology Lust Stories 2. Starring Tilottoma Shome, Amruta Subhash and Shrikant Yadav, The Mirror is being hailed as the standout film in Lust Stories 2, where Konkona does a lot more than just explore female desire in the contexts of different socio-economic backgrounds. In a freewheeling chat, Konkona tells us how her film got made and her filmmaking approach.
Take us back to the time when you were approached for Lust Stories 2. You were a little sceptical initially...
Konkona Sensharma: I did not have a major plan for directing anything. Even A Death in the Gunj happened because I was just obsessed with the story and wanted to tell it. I was busy acting, busy with my life and my son. Ashi Dua, my fantastic producer, approached me for Lust Stories 2 but I didn’t have anything ready for the subject. She was sure I would come up with something.
I started thinking with my collaborator Disha Rindani, who has also collaborated with me on my first film. She and I would discuss things about lust. We were discussing how we could complicate and view lust. Initially, we were thinking from a mother’s point of view. The idea of watching somebody came from there. This was on my mind.
One day I went out for dinner with my friends. One of my friends light-heartedly said how she came home one day with a migraine and discovered her household help in her bed with a man. When she said it, I was like ‘Oh my god, this is it!’ With my friend, it went the very conventional route where she fired the maid. I wasn’t interested in the morality of it. I immediately told her that I wanted to use it. From there I developed how it would go. I always knew that she was going to run out. Because if it happens to me, naturally I’d run, freak out and call my friend. The natural reaction is what I made happen in the film. Then I wanted to see how it would go from there. Pooja Tolani and I developed it together.
In the story, we see two different economic backgrounds and how society has created a divide around pleasure. What went behind delving into the intricacies of these women’s lives and capturing their nuances?
Konkona Sensharma: We had a lot of fun writing it. We knew it was audacious. In fact, initially, we thought Seema would be in bed with her lover. Then we thought it would be too much. The film slowly becomes reflective and introspective. We got many things to talk about. I was very interested in the spaces we share with other human beings.
At the end of the day, even if we say that people coming from Seema’s background are equal, they are not equal. In terms of where they are placed in society, they come from a position where they are much less privileged. Even at the end of the film, that’s never gonna go away. It’s almost like wishful thinking in a way. We managed to transcend these barriers. It’s nice to show it in a film. It’s just very out of the realm of the ordinary experience and I don’t know if it would ever happen in real life. It’s always nice to be in the imagination.
The positioning of the mirror is crucial. A lot must have gone into planning the mise-en-scene…
Konkona Sensharma: There were endless drawings that we made. We thought about everything very carefully and planned it precisely. We acted out everything. Pooja Tolani and I stood and looked at ourselves in different parts of the mirror. We drew how the house should be. We kept both the options of building a set and finding a house. We were not able to find a house like this. But I didn’t want to shoot it on a set.
For the mirror, we first realised that it was exposing too much. So we thought of choosing a poster of a photograph that had a glass mounting so that it would be reflected in the glass. The glass was looking beautiful but not giving clear images. Then we made it a smaller mirror. We tried out different mirrors, different heights, different sizes and different viewing positions. We created the bookcase and plants. I designed everything because of the way the apartment was and the location. I had to plan it accordingly. It should be a blur of days that passed by. Also to see the action happening in two places is always so interesting.
I always do very detailed shot division. I have to imagine the whole movie. The scenes of them having sex were deliberately shot wide. Because Isheeta was watching them from outside. I only went close when invited by Seema because I deliberately didn’t want the camera to be in the room until the time Seema wanted.
The first time we go close is when Seema knows Isheeta is watching them from outside. That gave her an orgasm. All the sex positions were plotted and planned with every department. There were seven positions. We found it very delicious to set up this world. Every single sex position was plotted. We planned the actors' positions, camera positions, crew positions, costumes, set and how much would be seen. In the shot, the actors were improvising. It was almost like a play. The pan shots and stitched VFX shots were planned and prepared in great detail across all departments.
What made you cast Tillotama Shome, Amruta Subhash and Shrikant Yadav?
Konkona Sensharma: Firstly, I’m really tired and sick of seeing Tillotama only playing a domestic worker when she has no business being limited like this. She’s so good at everything she does. I had told Tillotama that the reference for this is The Piano Teacher. Her sexuality is not very easily acceptable. It is a little inscrutable. It is a very unusual character who does very unusual things.
I find Tillotama extremely modern in her outlook and her approach. I knew I wanted her. Tillotama is the one who mentioned Amruta Subhash. As soon as she said it, I said ‘Oh my god, of course!’ Amruta helped me to find Shrikant Yadav. She gave me some options and I chose Shrikant. For me, he is the moral conscience of the film. He is such a wonderful, warm, dignified actor. They made my job easy. Amruta is such an accomplished actor. She has the best temperament to work with. Before I said anything to her, she always understood it.
Lust is still taboo, especially for women in India. How important is it to explore a woman’s desire in cinema and what were the challenges of dealing with this subject?
Konkona Sensharma: What things should be done or should not be, we cannot even get into it. We all owe it to ourselves to examine and explore our life fully whether cinema is giving it to us or not. Also to let other people be. One of the things which I wanted to express is the ending of the film where there’s an epilogue. After the two women meet again and talk, we see the empty house, somebody is coming in the lift, somebody opens the door, and before you can tell who it is the film is over. It is supposed to be like, ‘You should not care about who’s doing what. It’s none of our business what adults are doing unless they are hurting anybody.’ I wanted to go back to the playful nature of the film at the beginning. So that’s why the epilogue.
Usually in cinema, scenes featuring a woman are depicted through the male gaze. How did you deconstruct this in your film in Lust Stories 2?
Konkona Sensharma: This just came to us very naturally. We have not internalised the male gaze, thank god. It was not just to look at sex but also to look at and examine human behaviour.
The Mirror marked your debut in OTT. How is this medium helping directors and makers tell their stories?
Konkona Sensharma: For me, my film in Lust Stories 2 is a short film that is placed in an anthology. To be honest, a few years ago it was the theatres, today it is OTT, and tomorrow it will be something else. It is people in power who make decisions. It has been great because I have got very interesting roles very late in my life. I am grateful for that. Whoever the people in power are should be able to negotiate properly between people who have to necessarily view it as a business because they are putting in money and people who view it as a communication of ideas. There has to be a balance. It has to be a relationship of respect and collaboration.
Since you mentioned short films, it reminds me that you first tried your hand at filmmaking with a short film in Bengali...
Konkona Sensharma: Yes. The film was Naamkoron. I was very young and I never meant to make a film. Kala Ghoda Art Festival asked me to make a film. It was me and my friends experimenting. It is on YouTube. I was just trying things out for fun.
Social media is swamped with messages from people asking for more films from you…
Konkona Sensharma: I know. It’s so sweet. I’m just overwhelmed. I am a career actor. I mainly act. I’m a mother. Directing films will be once in a while when I have something to say. Otherwise, I will not be able to say anything worthwhile. I’m going to try to develop a couple of things. I don’t want to put so much pressure on myself. Let’s see how it goes.