Vivek Gomber on being the lead in Sir, producing independent cinema, and meeting Alfonso Cuaron

'I am happy cinemas are opening and I hope people will go watch Sir, while being careful too,' says Vivek Gomber about his new film's release.

Udita Jhunjhunwala November 23, 2020 15:30:58 IST
Vivek Gomber on being the lead in Sir, producing independent cinema, and meeting Alfonso Cuaron

Vivek Gomber

Vivek Gomber has produced three films in six years. The first and third have won international awards and acclaim. While it is hard to say if the second one will ever see light of day, Gomber is content with the journey of both Court and The Disciple, both films directed by Chaitanya Tamhane premiered at the Venice Film Festival (2014 and 2020 respectively).

The US-educated actor-producer, Gomber made his acting debut with television shows until the movie, The President is Coming, landed him the part of Rohit. Just like his sophomore production, Balekempa, his second movie as an actor – Meridian Lines – did not find a release.

When he met Tamhane a dozen or so years ago (the director was just 21 then), Gomber says he was so affected by the script of Court that he had to come on board as producer. He was also cast as lawyer Vinay Vora.

The acting opportunities have been sparse but Rohena Gera’s romantic drama Sir placed Gomber in leading man territory. Sir premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 and, after extremely successful runs in cinemas across the world, finally releases theatrically in India on 13 November.

The character of the brooding Ashwin, who falls for his domestic helper Ratna, sharply contrasts with Arun Mehra, the flamboyant businessman with a huge colonial hangover, seen in Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy.

Speaking from his home in Mumbai, Gomber opens up about producing independent cinema, his association with Tamhane, who he refers to as ‘CT’, meeting Alfonso Cuaron and criticism about the accents in A Suitable Boy.

Edited excerpts from the conversation:

Sir was supposed to release in cinemas in India in March, just before the pandemic brought life to a halt. How do you feel about it releasing just as cinemas reopen?

It does feel strange that it is releasing now. This whole year feels bizarre. But props to Rohena for persevering to get the film out there. I have struggled to get films released too. You can make a film but getting it out there is such a pain and it’s exhausting, especially if it is independent in spirit. Sometimes the work we do as actors doesn’t come out at the right time, or at all, and you don’t get to showcase that side of you. I am happy cinemas are opening and I hope people will go watch Sir, while being careful too.

Vivek Gomber on being the lead in Sir producing independent cinema and meeting Alfonso Cuaron

Gomber as Arun with Tillotama Shome (Ratna) in Sir

This is turning out to be quite a year for you with A Suitable Boy, Sir and The Disciple, which won awards at the Venice and Toronto film festivals.

I have never had a year like this before. I have been waiting so long for this. In the past I have not even had the possibility of two or three jobs, let alone their release within a 12-month period. Bombay Begums will also be released in the next few months. I hope that once my work is seen, casting directors approach me and I can book something new. As a producer on The Disciple, my experience is very different. 

As a producer, is it important for you to create important work?

As a producer the relationship with the project is important because the journey is so long that you have to be really committed. I just loved the story of Court. There were themes in it that were important and there was a political element, which I was very driven by internally. Themes in The Disciple are so universal. At the level of humanity and art, it is so beautiful. 

In a recent interview to GQ magazine you said a producer “needs to take responsibility for your creation and stand by it till death.” What are your plans, as a producer?

Honestly, I am working very hard to get The Disciple seen. Hopefully we will be able to share some news soon. But otherwise, it’s pretty much all over for me now as a producer because I don’t have any funds to make films. Some money was left to me when my dad passed away and I put those savings into these films. I knew the risk I was taking, aware I wouldn’t always get the money back, but I felt it was important. If at all I do another project, then maybe it would be a co-production. For now I am hoping ‘The Disciple’ will bring some, if not all, of my money back, which will give me some courage to think about future possibilities because working on these films is fun. I thought theatre is addictive, but filmmaking is even more addictive.

Vivek Gomber on being the lead in Sir producing independent cinema and meeting Alfonso Cuaron

As Arun with Shahana Goswami (Meenakshi) in A Suitable Boy

What was it like working on A Suitable Boy?

Mira Nair is the reason I wanted to do the series, and I was so happy she wanted to work with me. It was awesome to watch her run the set. She has a wonderful line: ‘Do one for love’. She’s so charming, even when she is scolding you. To see her eye, and how her team sets up shots, the details and the prep was amazing. I learnt so much, both as an actor and a producer as I watched them make something so large scale on such a tight budget with so many actors. Plus it was fun to work with co-stars and friends like Rasika Dugal, Vivaan Shah, Namit Das and Gagandev Riar.

What is your response to criticism of the accents in the show?

Whenever we have a period film and Indians are speaking in English, we have this issue and I suppose it is more obvious to the fans of the book that might have imagined it differently. Interestingly, people abroad loved it and had no issue with the accent; whether they are Indian or foreign viewers, they did not notice the difference. But I understand that in India what we are watching here is moving towards realism and we see so many different actors in so many different works that it might be harder. I can only talk about my character. In the book, and Mira also wanted him to be this way, Arun’s obsession pours out in his accent and his demeanour. My attempt was to be larger than life and build the arc of why he speaks like this, which you understand by the fourth episode.

I hear the criticism and it’s okay, but one should understand that it was made by the BCC for their channel, for a British audience. 

Arun Mehra is poles apart from Ashwin in Sir.

Yes, the silence and repetition of activities were part of the process and because they had a master-servant relationship, there could be no grey area really. A grey space would bring a power imbalance. The challenge with performing Ashwin was to keep it internalised, to hold on to the moments when he is alone and pondering. The repetition of everyday actions, like the opening of the front door, allows you to explore dimensions to, and evolution of, the relationship. Rohena gave Tillotama (Shome) and myself the opportunity to give our inputs because when it is largely two characters, you are stitching the performance together.

Vivek Gomber on being the lead in Sir producing independent cinema and meeting Alfonso Cuaron

With Chaitanya Tamhane

The Oscar-winning Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron is executive producer on The Disciple. What was your interaction with him like?

I have met him a couple of times and been on calls and emails with him, especially once he officially came on as executive producer. I first met him at the culmination of the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative ceremony in Germany in 2018. CT's father and I were his guests. During that weekend, I got to know Alfonso well. This was just before we were going on the floors with 'The Disciple', which he had already read. Besides imparting a lot of knowledge and insight to CT, he also gave him a piece of very valuable advice, which was that CT himself should edit ‘The Disciple’. This is what I too was hoping he would do. Alfonso is generous, humble and gracious. He’s also a taskmaster, just like CT. They both work hard, and they have an incredible friendship.

Over the years, how has your relationship with Chaitanya evolved?

He was 21 years old when we first met. He’s 33 now and I am 41. So it’s been quite a journey. I don’t know what he’s going to make next, or where but I know I would like to be associated and would like to help him in any way I can. I think CT is going to fly even more and now he has people outside also looking out for him too. As a producer, I would need to find a director I can trust the way I trust CT. The confidence and faith we have in each other has come over years of knowing each other. He has been a director, actor’s director, friend, producer and brother. 

 (All images from Twitter)

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