Mira Nair’s ‘Monsoon Wedding’ (2001) was where Tillotama Shome was seen on the big screen for the first time. And now, as theatres finally open in India after remaining shut for around eight months owing to the Covid-19 scare and the lockdown, her new film ‘Sir’ will be one of the first films to hit the theatres. She has had a long journey in cinema but her journey as an actor started with theatre when she was in college. When you speak to Tillotama, you realise she is sensitive, empathetic and a very grounded person. Perhaps, these are the qualities that make her the incredible actor she is.
In this exclusive interview, she speaks about looking forward to the theatrical release of ‘Sir’ in India, the kind of preparation she had to do to play Ratna, how acting helped her deal with and get over her speech impediment, what studying in seven different school over a period of twelve years taught her, films that are closest to her heart and more.
After being screened at some of the most prestigious film festivals across the globe and releasing in close to 30 different countries, ‘Sir’ is finally releasing in India. How do you feel about it?
I am nervous and excited in equal measures. The film is set in India, in Mumbai. So, it is finally coming home. The trailer got such an overwhelming response when it came out. I am really hoping the film speaks to the audience the way it spoke to me. We are a very class-bound society. Here, a relationship or even a friendship, which cuts across different class, is a taboo. Before the shoot started, I went online to look for stories or testimonies of friendship and love between men and the women working in their homes as maids and the only thing that came up was pornography. I realized the only way which most people could see a relationship between a man and a woman, who belong to two different strata of the society, was pornography. There is no other space for our imagination. That is when I felt very scared. How do we portray this story without making it look cheap, titillating or misrepresenting it. Rohena (Gera, director) is a very sensitive filmmaker. I remember her telling me that one thing she wants me to remember about Ratna is that she never loses her sense of dignity. Dignity is not a thing which you can buy with money.
True. Even in the trailer, one can see Ratna as a woman with a dream and ambition. She states that she wants to become a designer.
Yes, dignity is not something only the rich can buy. Either you have it or don’t. Every character has a sur. This was one thing that helped me understand Ratna. Even if she is put in a position where she feels humiliated, she never loses her sense of dignity. I have known Vivek (Gomber) as a friend for a long time. He treats everybody equally. It is a very easy thing to say but most of us fail to follow it. We tend to respect people who are powerful. We tend to ignore people who serve us. You cannot imagine that you can marry them and have children with them. We are so conscious about our class that we cannot see the human being. All of us are guilty of having these prejudices in our lives.
Earlier this year, one saw you playing a dacoit in the film ‘Dheet Patangey’ which came out on a streaming platform. What is the process you follow to move or switch from one character to another?
Every character is different from the other. I do not shoot for more than one project at a time. You prepare for the character in different ways. If the character has particular dialect, you learn that. Sometimes, you have to learn the physicality of a character. Every character requires you to undergo a different kind of preparation.
What is the kind of preparation you had to do to play Ratna?
The preparation primarily revolved around learning to speak Marathi. There are a few scenes where Ratna goes to her village and speaks in Marathi. We did workshops with Pushpendra Singh. He is a filmmaker whose last film did very well at festivals a while back. During the workshop, what we really focused on was finding that delicate dynamic between the two characters. The workshop really helped in finding that chemistry. The preparation was largely about trying to realize what it takes to respect an individual and treating them as an equal. I had signed the film and they were still looking for an actor who could play Ashwin. They were auditioning several actors for Ashwin’s part and Rohena asked me if I could come there and perform with them to see whom the chemistry was working with. Personally, I found something very different about Gomber. He was somebody who was completely unaware about being nice. When we do something good, we feel “I am such a good person”. Gomber is not like that. Treating people equally is not a virtue. It is the most basic thing to do.
You studied in seven different schools in twelve years. How did it shape you as an individual?
My father was in the Air Force, so we moved from one place to another at regular intervals. We would learn a language every time we would move to a new place. At that time, my biggest survival tactic was to be invisible. Later, I realised that was such a great training for an actor.
Your journey as an actor started with Arvind Gaur’s theatre group in Delhi.
Actually, it all stared in Lady Sri Ram College in Delhi where I studied. Banarupa Roy, who is one of the finest puppeteers in the country, was my senior in the college and captain of the Dramatics Society. She cast me in my first play. My love for theatre started then. Later, I joined Arvind Gaur’s theatre group in Delhi and was a part of many theatre productions.
Theatre also helped you to deal with a speech impediment you were dealing with.
Yes, that’s right. The plays I acted in Lady Sri Ram College had very few dialogues. So, people who watches those plays could not tell that I had a stammer. As I did more and more shows, the demons in my head, which told me that I cannot speak, were overpowered by the confidence that I started getting by being in somebody else’s skin. Acting became therapeutic for me. That is the power of empathy. That is the power of trying to step into somebody else’s shoes It can heal you into ways you do not realize. After I finished my Masters, I studied drama therapy in New York. I did my therapy workshops for convicts in prison. There is a huge therapeutic aspect to art which we often forget.
One has seen you largely in offbeat or independent films. Are you open to doing more commercial projects?
Yes, I have always been open to doing all kinds of work. A lot of people tend to assume that I like doing independent films or serious cinema. A while back, I played a loud Punjabi mom in the Alt Balaji – Zee5 show ‘Mentalhood’. For me, the character that I am offered should be something I have not done before. The politics of the project should not be wrong. I do not want to take myself too seriously. I like to work with filmmakers who are also good human beings. The script is very important. I understand that you cannot get everything in one project. I make sure that the character I am playing is not a stereotype.
Which has been your most fulfilling project till date?
There has been quite a few of the ones that have released. ‘Monsoon Wedding’ is very special as it was my debut film. Working on the film was very memorable. It was an extraordinary experience to work with somebody like Mira Nair. One film that really pushed me in a lot of ways and gave me friends for life was ‘Qissa’ (2013). I learnt a lot about the craft from director Anup Singh. What I learnt while working on that film is something I can use in any other film. That remains a very special film.