Tillotama Shome: ‘Writing is a humbling discipline’

Currently penning a script, actor Tillotama Shome discusses the possibility of directing, and working with debut filmmakers with fresh voices

Actor Tillotama Shome is quite concerned about the mental health of journalists during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m staying away from the news for my own sake, so I wonder how it must be for you,” she enquires, as we begin our phone conversation, a day before the digital release of her latest film, Chintu Ka Birthday, directed by Devanshu Kumar and Satyanshu Singh. Shome has an eagerness to know more. “I’m sorry this is turning out to be your interview,” she interjects, putting across a follow-up question. The curiosity and zeal to learn are quite palpable, as Shome, elaborately discusses her motivation behind selecting a film. In this case, it involved the opportunity to acquire two new skills: speak in a Bundelkhandi dialect and learn to sing.

Although cognizant of the film’s budget constraints, learning the dialect through regular coaching was non-negotiable for Shome. “I told the directors that I will not put myself out there and be an imposter,” she recalls. The script also required her to sing, which was initially supposed to be performed by a playback singer. But to maintain authenticity, Shome acquired the basic skills of singing through actor Mansi Multani. “I was quite taken aback that both these demands were met by the directors,” recounts Shome.

Fresh voices

The actor values the sincerity that debut filmmakers, like Kumar and Singh, bring to the table. “I’ve made a career out of doing a lot of small budget, independent films made by debut filmmakers,” recalls Shome, who made her debut in 2001 with Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, and subsequently worked with filmmakers like Rohena Gera and Anup Singh. Her films have travelled to film festivals like Cannes and Locarno, drawing critical acclaim. “There is really no calculation that goes into picking these films; it is a gut feeling,” she shares.

For Shome, the role of an actor is to interpret a filmmaker’s vision, while not influencing their perceptions. “For that, I will direct my own film, where it is my job to look at everybody else’s work,” she informs. With Chintu Ka Birthday, for instance, her political stance on the involvement of the US in Iraq may differ from the filmmakers’ but she had to service their point of view as an actor. “I felt betrayed by America when I went there as a student right after 9/11,” recalls the actor, who graduated from New York University (NYU) in educational theatre. “I had such illusions about America and I thought I could extract from their educational system, but when I started working in the American system, I felt quite disillusioned.”

The actor observes that sometimes the politics of a film resonates deeply with her personal politics, but that is “very rare and it spoils you because then you expect more”. With a career spanning almost two decades, she has observed that the politics of a film may appeal to her but the execution, “can be misogynistic, patriarchal and hierarchical”. “I’ve come out of only one such experience and thank god, it really opened my eyes; the hypocrisy of being politically correct but inhuman in the way you treat people, junior artist and the crew. What about those politics?”

Behind the camera

The plan, for Shome, is to don the director’s hat, eventually, even though it may appear daunting at the moment. “I was very scared when Konkona [Sen Sharma] made [A Death in the Gunj], she’s a dear friend and my mouth was in my heart when I saw the number of responsibilities [she had],” confides Shome. But the actor is writing a script nonetheless, which in time shall be her directorial debut. “Writing is a humbling discipline,” she says. “When you write it is easier to not critique other people so much.”

The actor is currently undergoing language training for filmmaker Rima Das’ next film. The two first met at Cannes, where Shome’s film, Sir, premiered in Critics' Week section. They consecutively met in Mumbai, where Das approached Shome to act in her upcoming project. Shome describes Das as “an unconventional self-taught filmmaker who makes her own rules”. After their initial meetings, Das invited Shome to her village in Assam, where she stayed with her family for a few days. “No other filmmaker has asked me to come home and live with them as a prerequisite to working in their film,” observes Shome.

The actor is also working on cinematographer Saumyananda Sahi's directorial debut, who shot critically-acclaimed films like Eeb Allay Ooo!, Nasir and Balekempa. “He and his partner Tanushree [Das] have written this incredible script,” informs Shome. “I worked with filmmakers for whom the process is as important as the relationships they build.” The intermingling of the personal with professional, contrary to what one would expect, has enhanced Shome’s performances and made the process memorable. “One has to be even more professional when the personal is at stake,” she declares.

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2020 9:12:58 PM |

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