Tillotama Shome on playing Ratna in romantic drama Sir, film's theatrical release and international recognition
The Rohena Gera directed film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, will be in cinemas on 13 November.
It was March, just days before the release of two of Tillotama Shome’s films, when we met. In Angrezi Medium, she plays college consultant Tarika, and in Is Love Enough? Sir, she is Ratna, a house help. Shome was excited, hopeful, looking forward to the films. But then the lockdown was announced, ensuring that Sir had to step back into the wings and wait for a new release date.
The Rohena Gera directed film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, will now be in cinemas on 13 November, making it one of the first films to release in the unlock period. For Shome, the release of Sir is the end of a long wait.
Eight months after that warm March meeting, Shome spoke on the phone from Kolkata. The mood is different now, perspectives have changed, meetings have become virtual. Within that she’s grateful to have a movie coming out, to be able to give people some respite from the claustrophobia and uncertainty of the last few months.
In the beginning of the year, the Qissa and Death in the Gunj actress was also seen in the web series Mentalhood. Three projects in one year is a novelty for Shome who has found substantial roles and greater accolades in independent and international cinema, than Bollywood.
“One is so used to the work not being seen in India that one has developed a sense of humour about it. I have also discovered the positives of that, such as the joy of getting lost in various characters and scripts and also maintaining a completely normal life without any glare of fame or recognition in one’s own country,” said Shome who has spent the last few months in Mumbai, Pune and now Kolkata.
When your work is not as visible in your home country, you sometimes miss out on recognition from your peers and acknowledgement of filmmakers. “That would bother me,” admits Shome, “but now, because of the gifts I have been given by the directors who trusted me with their films, that hole has been filled.”
The “triple bonanza” slated for March did bring with it press attention as well as interest from other quarters. “I am grateful. But it has come at a time when I am also realising that I am really okay with the way things are,” she said.
Shome is realistic enough about the niche reach of independent cinema. “That small part that I had in Hindi Medium got me more love from the public because of its reach. I realise that it is important to be a part of commercial films too, provided you like the part and can do something with it. If you are more identifiable, that helps independent filmmakers to take a risk with you too.”
This was partly the motivation for taking on a show like Mentalhood. Preeti is a far cry from the more subtle and nuanced roles Shome is usually approached for. She said, “I don't want to take myself too seriously. If life has taught me anything, it is that it’s so unpredictable.”
Her husband Kunal Ross, who is one of her most “honest critics”, drew her attention to the need to lighten up with her choice of roles. “He told me ‘you're talented and I like your work, but it's too serious. If you don't do comedy, I don't know what will happen.’ I was like, OK. You are my sanity, so I will do comedy. Angrezi Medium and Mentalhood are my ode to Kunal. I am glad he said that,” said the Chintu Ka Birthday and Kadvi Hawa actress.
Her mother, Shome’s other “most honest critic, would often tell her daughter that she talks “like a police officer that has to save lives”. Both these voices of reason nudged her into lightening up professionally.
“Kunal made me aware that you can be serious but also relaxed, and that life can be fun. I did want the hard edges of my life to get softened, and that is also reflecting in my work,” said Shome who is looking forward to getting back to work with films by directors Rima Das, Saumyananda Sahi and Anup Singh, besides Madhuja Mukherjee’s Deep Six.
On the subject of Sir, Shome lights up. She’s wonderful as Ratna, a domestic worker, bringing real depth and delicacy to the part in a romantic drama that dives into class issues in urban society.
“I am grateful that Sir is releasing in India. I had almost given up on it, like I had with so many of my other films. Doing well on the festival circuit somehow makes them ineligible for Indian audiences. I know how hard Rohena has worked to get a theatrical release in India.”
Speaking on her character specifically, Shome said, “I've made a career out of playing marginalised and poor persons. I didn't want to misappropriate any aspect. One of the notes Rohena gave me was that Ratna never loses her sense of dignity, no matter how indignifying the situation. I held on to that thread. Vivek Gomber's performance (as her employer Ashwim) was also very dignified. Gomber’s Ashwin was unaware that he was doing something special. It never felt patronising or exploitative (sic).”
Like so many of us, Shome navigated lockdown and rarefied existence during a pandemic with some trepidation, fear and reconciliation. At the start of this period, she explored the possibility of writing a film script, documenting the lives and experiences of her family and that of her in-laws. Instead, she found herself occupied by “washing hands, washing the house, washing clothes and washing utensils. I feel silly that I even said I was writing a script. For now, I am compiling a notebook of ideas and thoughts.”
A close family member’s illness resulted in long hours spent in a hospital. Hearing the wail of someone in the next room, mourning the passing of a loved one, observing the kindness of strangers and the endurance and patience of hospital staff altered Shome’s perspective and impacted the initial idea she had for a script.
“One can’t help it but, even amidst tremendous grief, one can still see the grand cinematic quality of life. This changed my initial story idea and made me question the kind of film I want to write, to question what it’s for and what it will do.”
Even as she considers these existential and broad questions, Shome returned to Sir and its imminent theatrical release before signing off. “Thank god for cinema. If film can distract you for a few minutes, as news of Sir’s release distracted me completely, that’s great. That’s the joy of cinema.”
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