MFF 2013: Tillotama Shome talks about playing a man in Irrfan's Qissa

Deepanjana Pal

Oct,15 2013 18:02:00 IST

Director Anup Singh has said of actress Tillotama Shome that "she disappears into her character. She vanishes and this strange and familiar figure, which was just words on paper, is suddenly before you." Since she made her debut as the quietly charming maid Alice in Monsoon Wedding, Shome has been steadily building up a very respectable filmography that includes films like Shanghai and Tasher Desh. In Singh's Qissa, she plays Kanwar Singh, who was born a girl but was raised as a boy by her father Umber Singh (played by Irrfan Khan).

A screengarb from the film.

A screengrab from the film.

Umber treats Kanwar as a boy and then a young man. Kanwar is put under the care of a wrestler and eventually becomes a truck driver. Umber goes so far as to marry Kanwar to Neeli (Rasika Duggal) and this, predictably, leads to a set of complications. Set in Punjab in 1947, Qissa is a film about our sense of identity and home. It premiered at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, won the Netpac Award at TIFF and will be screened at Mumbai Film Festival, which starts on October 17th.

Shome spoke to us about Qissa and Kanwar Singh.

Qissa is set in 1947 and the ethnic cleansing that took place in Punjab during Partition. How relevant do you feel these issues are today?

There was a lady from Syria who came to watch Qissa at TIFF. She understood the film deeply, despite not knowing historical specificities of Partition. The separations that are tearing her country apart allowed her to embrace the film without any translation. Besides, the film is not just an exposition on Partition. The brick walls have bullet marks, but the camera does not stay on them. The cruelty of Partition is explored through the actions of a man driven by his desire to change destiny, to swallow it up if he can; and the choices he makes plunges his whole family into a vortex. Its relevance today lies in the simple fact that we are all essentially refugees and the film will touch a chord no mater how free you think you might be. The secret chamber of this film, for me, is 'dislocation of desire' at every level: gender, nationality, humanity.

You play the role of Irrfan Khan's daughter whom he raises as a son. Can you tell me a little bit about the role? 

To play the part of Kanwar, I trained for seven months in Punjabi, swimming, kalari and driving! It was like being in school, but in a good way! Anup also asked me to watch two Dilip Kumar films, Aan and Tarana as reference for body language. It was not a reference that I expected and what a delight it was to watch this tragic hero approach the lighthearted, swashbuckling peasant in Aan. An interesting bit of trivia: Dilip-ji was born in a place in Peshawar called Qissa Khawani Bazaar. Poetic coincidence or Anup Singh's grand design?!

This however was just the physical aspect. Anup warned me from trying hard to be 'manly'. Instead, he encouraged me to just be the best son I could be to my father. He did not want a woman who looked like a man (no prosthetics to my rescue), but he wanted us to experience the tremendous effort that this girl made to be a man for her father. So he guided me to explore the interior life of Kanwar: an entity that struggles to navigate between his public face and her private self. Anup’s direction was sublime, and I wish I had understood more when we were shooting than I do now. That’s my problem: I mostly understand things retrospectively.

Has playing Kanwar influenced you the way you think of women, bodies and gender off screen as well?

Yes, in ways that I am still discovering! I was so hyper about being the ‘manly man’ and Anup let me dabble with that limited notion for a while until he explained to me the beauty of balance between the feminine and the masculine and to not get caught up by superficial gendered trappings. Gender is a slippery slope and you can never be sure of everything about yourself. The body until I did Qissa was a known entity and now it just seems so malleable. I now can believe that during the war in Vietnam there were men who began lactating. Just the other day my friend was telling me about her village where the women go to work on the fields and to placate the newborns, the men sitting at home let them suckle on their nipples.

What was it like working with director Anup Singh, Irrfan Khan and the rest of the cast of Qissa?

The film set of Qissa was like the metaphorical Golden Age for me. Anup respects the inherent dignity of each person so deeply, no matter who they are, that you have no choice but respond to that with your entire being. Every person on set responded to his generosity of spirit without fail. Anup is one of those directors who trust the actor will make the necessary discoveries on their own. He wanted me to figure something for Kanwar by watching two of Dilip Kumar's films, but he would not tell me exactly what it was. With two days left to the shoot, I finally made a guess. He was so happy that I had found the very thing that he'd wanted me to. I felt overjoyed that he allowed me to savour the feeling of discovery. Through little sleep, a broken arm and innumerable pressures, Anup was the gentle giant who always welcomed you with a smile and had time for the million questions that I had.

Irrfan is an enigmatic actor who will break the fatigue of a shoot with his sudden urge to fly kites or play a game of cricket. And Tisca Chopra, she is beautiful and I wish I had more scenes with her. But most of my scenes were with Rasika Duggal, who has lodged herself in my heart with her incredible warmth and willingness to constantly try things as an actor. Both of us would spend hours doing lines, as if it was our last day on Earth.

How long did Qissa take to shoot and complete? Was it difficult to let go of the role at the end of the process or was it a relief?

Twelve years to raise the money — I call Qissa Anup’s version of 12 Years a Slave two months to shoot and a year of post production until its premiere at TIFF. I lived with the film for nine months (7 months of rehearsal and 2 months of shooting) but Anup Singh has lived with it for twelve years.

As an actor, that is the longest workshop for me and the steepest learning curve. I would love for a chance to act in Qissa again. But I am also relieved that we completed it. It’s a mixed bag, but leaning towards moving on with some serious Qissa hangover.

Do you make a conscious choice to avoid commercial cinema or have things simply worked out this way?

The commercial versus non-commercial is a very limiting dichotomy. Besides, there is only so much you can plan. I grew up with a stammer and I made a conscious choice to do the one thing that felt impossible for someone like me: To Act! The magical world of performance was anathema to who I believed I was. I challenged that self perception and wanted to see how far I could take that challenge. I am still doing the same thing, so it’s not a pragmatic decision but a more impulsive one. Everyday is about challenging what I think I know and what I feel I can’t do.

Updated Date: Oct 15, 2013 19:13 PM