This ‘crossover actor’ has been the toast of the international festival circuit and the poster girl for independent cinema in India, so it’s not surprising at all that Tillotama Shome is now raging in the OTT arena too. We catch up with her on all things cinema
There are movies you like, movies you marvel at, and then there are those rare few movies that keep haunting you even years later. For me, Anup Singh’s film, Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (2013), falls in the third category.
Although the poignant movie had stupendous performances by the lead cast that included Irrfan Khan, Tillotama Shome, Tisca Chopra, and Rasika Dugal, it was Shome’s nuanced and even heart-breaking portrayal of Kanwar Singh — a girl raised as a boy by her father and then married to another woman — that has stayed with me for almost a decade.
“Qissa is an incredibly important film in my life. Working with Anup was the acting school I never went to. He has given me tools that I can carry to any film I do. His process is centred in his deep love for human beings,” says Shome, who won the best actress award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival for the same.
But then, Tillotama Shome had established herself as a powerhouse actor from her very first outing as Alice, the demure help of the Vermas in Mira Nair Oscar-nominated 2001 film Monsoon Wedding.
Like many in the industry, she became an actor by chance. She was born in Kolkata to Anupam and Baishakhi Shome. Since her dad was with the Indian Air Force, she grew up in different parts of the country. “We were moving from one place to another every few years, forgetting a language, and learning a new one,” recalls Shome. “Most of our time went in playing in the park or climbing trees and reading books. Television was limited, and my parents used to take us out for one English film once a month when we moved to Bangalore. That was the extent of our exposure to cinema,” she reminisces.
She joined Arvind Gaur’s Asmita theatre group while studying English Literature at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi. The reason was not, however, her love for acting. “No one at home spoke in Hindi, and I knew I had to learn the language,” she says. But Asmita helped her in ways she didn’t expect. “It was a daily fight with my shortcomings. Observing senior actors like Deepak Dobriyal and Shalini Vats was pure learning. But I was always terrified of my terrible Hindi,” she chortles.
More than anything, her stint at Asmita helped her overcome her speech impediment. And it made her curious about the process. “I overcame my stammer through theatre and I wanted to study how it worked. Drama therapy and educational theatre answered that question. Chris Vine was a master in process work and was teaching at NYU. I had to go and learn from him, to understand what happened to me,” says the actor who did a master’s program in educational theatre from New York University.
But, “Cinema was never the next step. Cinema was an act of defiance, to see if I could make the impossible possible,” she adds. Before joining NYU, it was while she was doing her Masters in English Literature at DU that she cracked the audition for Monsoon Wedding. In fact, she went to NYU armed with a letter of recommendation from Mira Nair.
After graduating from NYU, she took up a job with Creative Arts Team, and was assigned to work at domestic violence shelters and prisons. Although the experience of working with prison inmates gave her newer perspectives, two-and-a-half years later, she found herself itching to return to India, and act.
Although Shome did quite a few projects, including Indo-European/Australian collaborations, the film that I next saw her in was Dibakar Banerjee’s political thriller, Shanghai. She gave a searing performance as Aruna Ahmadi. That year, she was also the sword-wielding Queen in the 2012 psychedelic Bengali fantasy, Tasher Desh — an edgy, risqué, and deeply polarising retelling of Rabindranath Tagore’s 1933 dance drama by the same name. It not only showcased her versatility, but also reflected her knack for cinema that was not essentially mainstream.
“I don’t have an end goal. I am seeking experiences that excite me and I am not enslaved to any goal whatsoever. I decided to come back to acting seven years later because I was exhausted, and wanted the salve of fiction. I have followed my gut even if it were at odds with well-intended secular advice. I am glad that I can say that this is my vocation, and one of the few things in the world that make me very happy,” she says.
She has since given some stellar performances in movies like Shadows of Time, Hindi Medium, Kadvi Hawa, The Bastard Child, Angrezi Medium, and of course, Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost.
She bagged a Best Supporting Actress Filmfare nomination for her turn as Bonnie in Konkona Sensharma’s sparkling directorial debut, Death in the Gunj. But it is with her turn as Ratna in Rohena Gera’s debut feature, Sir (released in India in 2020) that Shome landed the Best Actress (Critics) at Filmfare. The movie also introduced Shome to a much wider audience base back home thanks to its OTT release.
“Rohena made the film with great passion and independence. Her fight to make this film, in her terms, was nothing short of a miracle. To get it to premiere at Cannes and win there was magic. Sir on Netflix made our work accessible to numbers hitherto unimaginable for us. It changed the scale of the audience. It was my first exposure to the explosive numbers of OTT. The nice thing about being a late bloomer is you are excited about things that others are already used to,” she says.
Her subtle yet strong portrayal of Ratna is a masterclass in nuanced acting. Once again, it is in the quieter moments that the actor shines the most. “Of the lot that is offered to me, I do that which excites me. Personally, it would be more difficult playing someone who is very verbose. But if the world of the project grabs my attention, I will swallow my fears. Dialogues are just one of many such fears,” she reveals. Maybe her having a speech impediment and being monosyllabic in the earlier part of her life has made her express and emote this well even when the dialogues are sparse.
Her latest outing sees her play an antagonist in Delhi Crime season 2. As the unhinged but scheming Karishma, she is 50 shades of grey and some more. Her performance reminded some of Batman’s Joker. We ask her if this was intentional. “Neither did I think [of the character] nor was I given the Joker as a reference. But a few people did talk about that vibe once the series was out. I want to be cool and say yes, but that would be a lie,” she clarifies.
Apart from getting rave reviews, Delhi Crime is also special as it sees her collaborate with her Monsoon Wedding co-star Shefali Shah. “To have started my journey with Shefali and sharing space with her once again 20 years later was life-affirming. We are still doing what we love. We are still here. We are not bitter. We are both in our 40s, and the busiest we have ever been. Clearly, the memo about our ‘shelf life’ got lost in transition,” she quips.
20 years into the business and art of cinema, it is Delhi Crime might have made her a household name, but her international acclaim has grown over the years. Shome recently won the best actor award at UK Asian Film Festival for Goutam Ghose’s 2019 film The Wayfarers (Raahgir). Ask her if such films have a better prospect now to reach the audience beyond the festival circuit, especially with the OTTs coming in, and she says, “This has been the story of independent cinema and I have been answering this question for the last 20 years. And yet the films get made. It is a battle and it takes a robust heart to embark on the journey of making an independent film,” she concludes.
Images: Tillotama Shome, PVR Pictures, MacGuffin Pictures