The family connect in A Death In The Gunj
Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut is based on father Mukul Sharma’s short story which was inspired by a true incident
“Don’t come to our house at night,” warns science writer-journalist Mukul Sharma, “I still do planchette all the time.” Sitting in the sun-washed living room of his Gurgaon house, where he lives with his wife and their adopted daughter, it is difficult to take Sharma’s warning seriously. The location looks as non-threatening, as the smiling, bespectacled, balding man delivering the warning. Which is why you need a setting like McCluskieganj to create the right mood, he says. “You do it here and it makes no difference. There are people all around. You do it in the middle of a forest and you can actually scare somebody,” says Sharma.
As he had once done, way back in 1979. His little prank forms the core of daughter Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut A Death In The Gunj. “My ex-wife, actor-director Aparna Sen, and I had been going to McCluskieganj since 1976. We had also bought a house there,” says Sharma. “We would do planchette all the time and I would always be the one to move it. That day we were asking who would die first. And when we came to our friend Chris Tripthorpe, I just didn’t say anything. He got scared and ran away. And he died after that – got run over by a train. Many believed it was suicide,” recalls Sharma. It was the guilt of a prank gone wrong that made Sharma write the short story on which A Death In The Gunj is based. “My story was more of speculative fiction about why Chris committed suicide. He didn’t need to,” says Sharma, adding, “He was not the last person in the room that day. I asked a person on my left and then I went around till it came to him. It only struck me much later that there was one more person left – me. I didn’t ask whether I was going to die first because Chris ran away. My story was basically about after he dies would Chris have wanted me to die first?”
The story of Konkona’s film is very different, which is why the credits make it very clear that it is only “based on a short story by Mukul Sharma which was inspired by a true incident”. “Konkona was only about a year-and-a-half old when this happened. But she had heard the story many times from both me and Rina (Aparna Sen’s nickname).” Bits and pieces of the family stories have found their way into the film – like the blue ambassador that one of the lead characters drives in the film. “I had a blue ambassador at that time,” says Sharma. And the song “Toont gachhe bhooth nache” – a tribal riff the family’s help in the Ganj used to sing, and which has been used in the film.
This is, however, not the first time that one of Sharma’s stories have been made into a Konkona film. The Kannan Iyer directed Ek Thi Daayan, produced by Vishal Bhardwaj and starring Konkona, was also based on a short story by Sharma. “That film was pretty close to my story. Vishal and I wrote the screenplay together, and we had to make a 900-word story into an approximately 40,000-word screenplay. My story was very simple. When I wrote that story, buildings didn’t have basement parking as they do now. So what happened if you are in an elevator and it went below the ground floor? You met all the evil people who had died,” says Sharma, with a twinkle in his eyes.
The writer has also recently finished turning two of his other stories into film scripts – one for Vishal Bhardwaj and the other for Abhishek Chaubey. “The first is called Dream Sequence. It’s about a person who dreams that he has woken up. The other is called Ghost.”
Though currently Sharma’s film association is through his writings, his debut in films had been as an actor. In 36 Chowringhee Lane, directed by ex-wife Sen, Sharma’s presence is brief. “I am one of the guests in the party scene. It was the last scene to be shot and Shashi Kapoor, who was the producer, said why not have a real party with real liquor. Rina had instructed that the cast and crew shouldn’t drink during the shoot. But the actor who was supposed to play this character got drunk and so Aparna asked me to do it. I was a guest and I had been drinking too. There were 23 takes for that scene. And this was non-digital time,” recalls Sharma, with a laugh.
His next screen outing, in the Aparna Sen directed Parama – as the young photographer iwith whom the bored and lonely housewife played by Rakhi develops a relationship – might also have been accidental, but won him both popularity and critical acclaim, and an award for best newcomer. “Goutam Ghose was to play that part. But he was directing another film with Naseeruddin Shah at the time. So he couldn’t do it. Aparna had thought of Naseer also, but he had shaved off his hair for that character, and she wanted her character to have a full head of hair. Finally Aparna asked me whether I would do it. And I am not going to say no to anything,” says Sharma. Though he had no previous experience of real acting, Sharma says “it was no big deal”. Did he enjoy the experience? “Of kissing Rakhi, you mean?” he asks with characteristic humour, adding, “I was really good looking at the time. If you had seen me in Parama, you wouldn’t believe you came to my house and saw me balding. I used to give autographs like crazy at that time in Kolkata. And I got other acting offers after that. But by that time I was deep into writing.”
Though Sharma and Sen separated when Konkona was about eight years old, he remained close to his daughter. “I married Binita soon after and Konkona would come and spend time with us. Actually, so would Rina. We couldn’t make it as a couple, but there was no real acrimony between us. We stayed friends,” says Sharma. The goodwill between the two is reflected in the fond pride with which he talks of Sen’s most recent film, Sonata. “I think she has been a better director than an actor. Not because she is not a great actor, but because she didn’t get as much opportunity as an actor. It’s different with Konkona, she didn’t do as many commercial films as her mother. I don’t watch Hindi films, so I haven’t seen her Hindi films either, but my wife has seen Wake Up Sid and she said Konkona was very good in the film. I have seen two of her films, 15 Park Avenue and Mr and Mrs Iyer (both directed by Aparna Sen). She got a national award for Mr and Mrs Iyer” he says, with obvious pride. The writer also remains in close contact with Dona, Sen’s daughter from her first husband. “She was two years old when I got married to Aparna and I adopted her. How can you not remain close to someone you have know from the time she was two,” he questions.
But what did Konkona, his only biological child, inherit from him? “My nose. And her weirdness,” says Sharma immediately. On a shelf in his study is a small black-and-white photograph of a very young Konkona, that Sharma says, was taken by mathematician-philosopher Sir Roger Penrose while he was visiting Sharma. “She likes the bizarre and I am Mr Bizarre. She did say my dad has some really bizarre stories. If she is like that she gets it from me. But I don’t know whether she is like that because she is very focused, very down-to-earth. I would like to say she is very truthful, honest and speaks her mind, but she gets those from her mother, not from me,” says Sharma, with a smile.