Actor Tillotama Shome believes her film Sir, a delicate love story between two people belonging to different classes, gave her a chance to look at the world with a more equal heart and eyes.
The film was all set to be released in India in March when the coronavirus pandemic changed the world but director Rohena Gera, who premiered her film at the Cannes Critics Week in 2018, held on to her dream to release the movie on Indian screens.
After releasing in 25 countries and garnering a lot of praise for its layered examination of class through a love story between a widowed house help and her recently single employer, the movie made its way to Indian theatres on November 13.
Tillotama Shome, considered one of the finest actors in India, admits she was initially afraid about how the story would pan out on the screen.
“When you look online for a friendship between a man and his domestic help, the only hits that come are of pornography. The only way you can imagine this relationship in our culture is in an extremely exploitative way like pornography,” the actor said.
There was also a fear about not being able to do justice to Rohena Gera’s vision with both Tillotama Shome and Vivek Gomber being cautious that the scenes between their characters, Ratna and Ashwin, don’t feel voyeuristic in any way.
“For us to recognise our own prejudice, we have to look within. The reason I did this film was because I felt guilty. Doing this film was my way of saying sorry and my way of looking at the world and people around me and in my life through a heart and eyes that are more equal,” Shome told PTI in an interview.
The actor said she and Gomber were extra careful about retaining the “delicateness and dignity” in the script while translating it to screen.
She said, “It’s just the way you look at each other. It can either feel like something wrong or feel like something human because you can fall in love with anyone. Whether the society accepts it or not is a completely different thing.”
What really helped Tillotama Shome was Rohena Gera’s line that no matter the situation, her character never loses her sense of self.
The actor said, “Somebody who is classist will say ‘Oh, she is a maid and yet she is so dignified.’ That sentence makes no sense because dignity is not the cultural capital of the rich or has anything to do with what your job is. It is a human trait, which very few people have and those who have it are extremely attractive and powerful.”
Shome added Ratna’s economic background doesn’t matter to Ashwin because he doesn’t subscribe to this worldview. “She is someone who inspires him. He is not surprised by her dignity.”
The actor revealed Rohena Gera’s decision to make Sir was inspired by her own issues with class politics in Indian society.
She said, “She was disturbed by this inequality, which is unfair and unaddressed in our society where we have people who work in our homes, make our bed, cook our food and yet we can’t imagine them sitting on the same table and eating with us. This kind of extreme inequality is not going to go anywhere unless one addresses and accepts the fact that we are flawed human beings who live an extremely problematic society which is unequal like the slave owners back in the day.”
The key to transforming into Ratna was rehearsing a lot with Gomber so much so that it would sometimes feel like they were revising before exams, Shome said.
The actor felt Gomber’s gentleness informed Ashwin’s portrayal and that was visible in their first reading together.
“As far as Ashwin’s character, when we did the scenes together, I never felt he is doing Ratna any favour by being nice. There’s a subtle difference. It’s a difference between ‘Look at me, I am being nice to you because I am such a nice person even though you are just a maid’. That is different from ‘I’m being nice to you because you are nice,’” she said.
Most of the scenes were shot in close confines of an apartment which gave them a sense of isolation, Shome said, adding that it worked for the characters as they start becoming aware of each other as the film progresses.
“But when Gitanjali Kulkarni and other actors would come for their parts, we would feel like somebody had come to meet us in prison. We would be so happy to see other human beings. But the sense of confinement helped us stay in our characters.”
After Sir, Tillotama Shome is working on Rima Das’ movie as well as reuniting with her Qissa director Anup Singh.
Asked about working with first-time directors, the actor said the script is always a priority but with new filmmakers, there is an added responsibility of reciprocating the trust.
She said, “At the end of the day, cinema is a director’s medium. It is their story and the first-time filmmakers trust you so fully. You want to do everything to respond to that trust and not disappoint. This is what makes you do your best.”
It has been a long journey from Alice of Monsoon Wedding, her feature debut in 2001, to Ratna in Sir, both different human beings and explorations for Shome.
“Alice was a completely different exploration and Monsoon Wedding was my first film. The character had a sense of magic realism about her. Ratna’s world is not about that. It is a film about a woman who has dreams, a great sense of self, is extremely dynamic and sure of what she wants and is not fazed by the difficulties in her life,” Tillotama Shome concluded.
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