After her praiseworthy act in the Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans earlier this year, Konkona Sensharma is back with a web series, this time on Amazon Prime Video. Directed by Nikkhil Advani and also starring Mohit Raina and Shreya Dhanwanthary among others, Mumbai Diaries 26/11 is set during the tragic terrorist attack that shook Mumbai in November 2008 and chronicles the chaos and the spirit of resilience inside a government hospital at that time.
Ahead of the premiere of the eight-episode series on September 9, The Telegraph chatted with Konkona on the show and why she’s enjoying herself as an actor now.
We have spoken a lot of times about how you don’t pick too many projects and only concentrate on those that contribute to you as an actor and you, in turn, can contribute to them as an actor. What boxes did Mumbai Diaries 26/11 tick for you?
First and foremost, the script was really engaging, it was a real page-turner. It was originally called ‘Bombay Hospital’ and 26/11 is used as a backdrop here... it’s not a documentary that replicates the events that happened at that time. It does follow the events of 26/11, but it is, to a certain extent, fictionalised or dramatised, rather.
But yes, the script was very interesting. As actors, we read a lot of mediocre scripts and it’s very difficult to read a bad script (smiles). And this one was over eight episodes, so it was a really fat script (laughs). It has events unfolding in real time, and we see the event of 26/11 and its aftermath from the point of view of medical workers in a government hospital.
We see how the doctors, nurses, ward boys, the administrative stuff deal with it. And they are also not perfect people with perfect lives. Some of them are broken people, some have a lot of baggage... they are all dealing with their own situations. Doctors are not Gods, as they are sometimes thought to be (smiles). That juxtaposition was very interesting for me. They are also ordinary people who never expected to be in this situation. That lends itself to a lot of drama and the series unfolds like a thriller. So I felt that just reading it seemed so interesting, when it would get made it would be all the more engaging.
It’s also very relevant because now more than ever, we are talking about frontline workers and what they have been doing for us. At that time, it was a terrorist attack and now it’s the pandemic....
You know, we didn’t realise how relevant it would be because at the time we shot it, there was no Covid. What is the real tragedy is that we shouldn’t need a 26/11 or a virus outbreak to know how dire the situation is in government hospitals, even in a city like Mumbai, forget the smaller towns. The doctors and nurses may be working passionately, but they don’t have the support or the infrastructure. There are patients lined up in corridors, there are families camped outside, they don’t have the money for a surgery even after they have sold off their land....
We are very privileged, we have doctors on our phonebooks, while most Indians don’t have access to basic healthcare. These medical workers are heroes every day. And in this story, we also look at 26/11 in terms of other frontline workers like the police and the media.
And when we talk about all these people in the show, we are not showing them as one type. They are different kinds of people, it’s not a monolithic identity.
Everyone’s layered and everyone’s flawed is what you mean to say. Do you naturally gravitate towards such characters?
That’s true for Chitra Das, the character that I play here. I don’t necessarily look for people who are very different from me. In fact, sometimes if the character is very removed from me — economically, socially, culturally — then it needs a lot of prep and hard work (smiles). For example, in Omkara and Mr and Mrs Iyer, I needed to do a lot of research, learn the dialect.... That was also the case in Geeli Pucchi (in Ajeeb Daastaans). Sometimes, if the character is urban and more generic and closer to you in terms of milieu, then you may not need to do so much research.
We are all different from each other, but the more specific we are, the more universal we become. This is something that I have heard and read and experienced. In fact, what I do is to try and find that person within myself. That’s because I feel we already have everything within us. If I play an angry person, I have also known anger and so I tap into that. If not, I try and find a person like that in my vicinity.
I think I am often observing people, and usually it happens organically. I am quite a daydreamer also, and I am most often in my own world. I find a lot of joy in observing people. Not only good things, but also the inequalities in life....
We all remember 26/11 and the horrific days after that. What are your memories?
I was not in town, I think I was in Alibaug for a birthday. There was a sense of disbelief. Firstly, we were not getting all the information and things were unfolding so fast and in different locations. It was very frightening. More than anything, it was shock and disbelief that this could happen in Mumbai. When we came back a few days later, I remember the silence that was there all around. The atmosphere had completely changed. Mumbaikars were so united in their shock and grief.
This is a web series. Before this, you had Geeli Pucchi and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, post the release of which you took to social media to write, ‘Grateful to have got a good role after so long.’ Do you think you are getting more interesting roles on the web now as compared to films?
I think so, though I would very cautiously say this! (Laughs) OTT has become such a big part of our lives. And I think OTT also has Covid to thank for that. The audience has become quite open to different formats. So you have a short film, anthologies, documentaries, feature films, regional cinema, mini series and you have those series which go on for seasons after seasons. Our viewing habits have expanded in terms of form, but also in terms of content. Of late, some actors who have given fantastic performances in the OTT space may not have got their due in mainstream Hindi cinema. Now, everybody has a lot of work, which is very nice. My only fear is that OTT should not start monopolising. They shouldn’t start dictating terms, everything must be done in a collaborative spirit.
With the advent of the streaming platforms, do you think female actors are now getting a better deal when it comes to issues like ageism, gender stereotyping and pay parity?
The gender pay gap is definitely there, even with me. It’s unacceptable, but I don’t know what to do about it. What do we do? Refuse work? That can’t happen. And most of the time, I see the men getting paid more. And that’s something I feel the media really needs to investigate. This is a very serious issue because so many women are the sole breadwinners in their families, and this is really unjust.
Ageism, to a certain extent, I believe is getting reversed. I am now getting a lot of interesting roles so late in my career... I hadn’t got so much variety earlier. That’s a hopeful thing. And if you don’t have to stick to a hero-heroine template, then you also get to see a lot of interesting stories nowadays.
Like it happens in Hollywood, can’t you and your contemporaries band together and fight against the gender pay gap?
It’s a good thought. I think it can’t be up to any one individual or any one community. Just actors can’t do it alone. I am a big believer in unions and unionism (smiles). It’s definitely a good idea to have an organisation and union for female actors. Also, the practices need to be more transparent.
When are you directing a film again? It’s been four years since A Death in the Gunj....
I am primarily an actor, and luckily I am now getting some good roles (smiles). I also have a 10-year-old son and I am fairly occupied. I adopted a dog in the lockdown last year and so now I am also a pet parent. Hands are full, life is full! I have taken on some writing work... I am open to direction as well. But it’s not a huge priority that I have to do it this year or next year. I don’t want to do it for the sake of doing it. I will direct a film when I really feel like I want to do it.