Thursday, May 27, 2010

Femininity as performance: Konkona Sen Sharma

Konkona Sen Sharma has quickly become an Exotic and Irrational favorite. She first came to our attention in Aaja Nachle (2007), where she played the distinctly unglamorous Anokhi. Anokhi is a tomboyish village girl who is trying to get Kunal Kapoor's Imran to notice her; when they are cast as the legendary lovers Laila and Majnu in the theatrical show that Madhuri Dixit's Dia is directing, Anokhi has her chance.

Even without English subtitles, the dynamics among the characters and the shifts between the film's reality and the characters' fantasies in Aaja Nachle's "Ishq Hua" should be pretty clear. That's Vinay Pathak and Sushmita Mukherjee as the older couple, and Ranvir Shorey dancing with Madhuri in his character's fantasy (music by Salim-Suleiman; directed by Anil Mehta):

Under the tutelage of the older, more experienced (and divorced) Dia, Anokhi learns that the way to a man's heart is to glam up, flirt, and become more feminine. By making a parallel between Anokhi's role in the show and her adoption of a more girlish personal style, the movie is suggesting—perhaps not inadvertently—that femininity is a performance.

And this isn't the only Konkona movie that makes that suggestion. In Life in a...Metro, Konkona plays Shruti, as a woman we are supposed to see (at least initially) as exaggeratedly severe; it's only after she gets some girl-to-girl advice about her appearance and demeanor that she begins to get some (initially unwanted) attention from Irrfan Khan's Monty. It's a measure of how good she is as an actress that the striking Konkona is so convincing as these supposedly unattractive women.

Incidentally, both movies also suggest that men are crude and self-centered until love allows them to let down their emotional guard a little. In other words, masculinity is also a performance—or to put it another way, an act.

In addition to (or sometimes along with) the ugly duckling who becomes a swan, Konkona also often plays young women beginning to make their way in the big city. Her characters, with the same mixed success as the rest of us, are seeking not only love, but creative fulfillment in their work. In Page 3 (2005), she plays a naïve journalist who realizes too late that she's become a part of the empty-celebrity machine; in Luck By Chance (2009), she plays an aspiring actress who discovers that talent and ambition aren't all that's required for Bollywood success; and in Wake Up Sid (2009), she plays a young writer who eventually lands a column in a hip nightlife magazine as the "New Girl in the City." Konkona's sympathetic performances are the best thing about all three of these movies.

Here she shows Aisha's recognition of her growing love for Ranbir Kapoor's Sid in Wake Up Sid's lovely "Iktara" (music by Shankar-Eshaan-Loy, lyrics by Javed Akhtar; directed by Ayan Mukherjee):

After Wake Up Sid, which was very successful both critically and commercially, Konkona may have felt that she was finished for the time being with "new girl in the city" roles. Certainly her current projects seem to involve very different kinds of characters. We haven't seen Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge or Right Ya Wrong (both 2010)—neither slapstick comedy nor suspense thrillers (Hitchcock aside) are favorite E & I genres. We are, though, looking forward to Iti Mrinalini (announced for a June 2010 release), Konkona's reunion with her mother Aparna Sen, who wrote and directed Konkona's breakthrough Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002).


  1. Very good point about the performances respective genders put on (or, can choose not to put on). Although, I feel that for (straight) women, more often than not, the performance is for other women, not men--those who don't perform are ruthlessly torn apart by other girls, especially in their teens. That certainly isn't what is depicted in most films, though.

    The thing I like best about Konkona is that she manages to endow her characters with intelligence even if they weren't written specifically that way. Anokhi might have come off as an idiot in another actress' hands; in Konkona's she's merely naive, which to me is much more sympathetic.

  2. Ajnabi, I can't comment on the savage world of teenage girls (though I will say that teenage boys can also be ruthless enforcers of conformity). But perhaps something of that dynamic is captured in both Aaja Nachle and Life in a...Metro, where it's women who instruct Konkona's characters on how to be more typically feminine. (What are we to make of Dia's divorce and (Shruti's roommate) Neha's unhappy affair with her boss--are they an implied critique of typical gender roles?)

    Excellent observation, too, that the intelligence with which Konkona endows her characters can make them more sympathetic than they're written to be. Both Anokhi and Shruti might have been cartoonish without those qualities; it's a major reason we seek out Konkona's films.

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. Once again a truly good post on Konkona's acting, roles and the respective gender perspective.

    Konkona is my favourite actress too in the current lot other than Vidya Balan. I have seen most of Konkona's movies except Page 3, Athithi Tum Kab Jaogey and Traffic Signal. I have the latter two - have to find time to watch these.

    Konkona is good in what ever role she takes up. Have you seen Mr & Mrs Iyer, Amu and Laga Chunri Mein Daag? Many people do not like LCMD ie the way the theme has been handled. However both Rani Mukherjee and Konkona have done a great job. Music is also a plus point in LCMD. WUS was my favourite 2009 movie.

  4. Filmbuff, many thanks for the kind words!

    I haven't yet seen Amu, but thought Konkona was excellent in both Mr. & Mrs. Iyer and LCMD. (I thought that despite its sanitized picture of sex work, LCMD was better than the critical and commercial drubbing it received, mainly because of its excellent cast.) Wake Up Sid was charming; while I liked Ranbir too, I think it was Konkona's performance that made the film work so well. As you say, she's good in every role she takes on.

  5. I don't watch Bollywood anywhere near as extensively as you do, but to tie together the ideas of "new girl in big city" and "feminity as performance," isn't the idea of a severe woman either charmed or instructed to be more ladylike a recurring trope in Bollywood movies, at least in movies that include the challenges of big city life? After all, it was one of the (many) subplots of Kal Ho Naa Ho... (which did not include Konkona). Consequently, perhaps I take a less charitable view of the phenomenom than you do - while yes, these movies do tacitly admit that feminity is a performance, they also seem to me to express the classic immigration/assimilation angst that children going to the big city will leave their traditional roots and roles behind... these movies subtly reassure that they will (usually) marry well within their culture and become loving wives and mothers, and not solely columnists, business students, store owners, and so on...
    sort of the Bollywood version of avoiding becoming the spinsterish librarian. But I may be merging your comments on Konkona as "feminine performer" with her roles as the new girl in the big city in a way you did not intend.

  6. David, I think your comment is very perceptive!

    Yes, the anxiety about loss of culture and traditions in the face of urbanization, emigration and globalization and is a real one, and it's an implicit theme in many Bollywood films (such as KHNH). In fact, it is the explicit theme of Aaja Nachle, where a theater--repository of (neglected) tradition--is being threatened by plans for the development of a shopping mall--symbol of commerce, modernity and globalization. It's what Marshall Berman, in his book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (Penguin, 1988) has called "the tragedy of development." And I'd say that you're right--Konkona's tomboyish characters in that film and in Life in a ...Metro are learning to be more traditional, as well as more feminine.

    In fact, there are a whole series of "tomboy dons sari/salwar kameez and wins her man" movies out there, from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to Main Hoon Na to Konkona's movies. And while all of these movies suggest that Indian traditions can coexist with global modernity, that reassurance itself probably indicates the level of anxiety about that very question.

    Here's an example: "Tumse Milke Dil Ka Jo Haal" (My heart stopped when I first saw you) from Main Hoon Na (thanks to LyricsNTranslation):

    Thanks for your thought-provoking comment!