WHEN the news of Rohena Gera-directed Sir’s selection for the Critics’ Week at the ongoing Cannes Film Festival came in, its lead actor Tillotama Shome called up her co-star and friend, Vivek Gomber, to share her excitement. Oblivious to its selection, Gomber was in a hospital, getting treated for a slip disc. That, of course, did not impact the celebrations.
Shome and Gomber had wrapped up the movie’s shooting in April 2017 and, till the time the announcement was made, were under the impression that it was still being edited. “We will watch it for the first time with the audience at the festival. That can be overwhelming,” says Shome. “There would be no place to hide,” says Gomber, who also produced the much-acclaimed Court (2014) as well as acted in it.
When we meet at Gomber’s newly-renovated Bandra home, ahead of their departure to Cannes, they hardly conceal their excitement. The Critics’ Week showcases directors’ first and second feature films. With Sir, Gera makes her feature film debut. She had earlier made a documentary called What’s Love Got to Do with It?, and written the screenplay of Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic (2008) and the story of Kuch Naa Kaho (2003).
Competing for the Camera D’Or, Sir revolves around Ratna (Shome), who works as a domestic live-in help for Ashwin (Gomber), a man from a wealthy family in South Mumbai. Although Ashwin seems to have it all, Ratna can sense that he has given up on his dreams and is somewhat lost. On the other hand, Ratna, who became a widow at the age of 19, is full of hope. According to the official synopsis of Sir, “as these two worlds collide, and the two individuals connect, the barriers between them seem only more insurmountable”.
Shome first met Gera at a farmers’ market in Pune, nearly four year ago. She was accompanying her husband Kunal Ross, who runs the coffee-selling portal The Indian Bean, while the writer-director’s French husband, Brice Poisson, was there with the products of his patisserie. Shome was shooting for A Death in the Gunj (2016) when Gera approached her for Sir. Shome immediately agreed after reading the script. “I told Rohena, I would love to explore this dynamic between Ratna and Ashwin. It’s so sensitive. At the same time, I was scared. It is so delicate that it could have gone wrong,” says Shome, known for her roles in movies such as Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Children of War (2014). Gomber came on board after a few rounds of auditions.
The movie gave an opportunity to Shome and Gomber, who are friends, to work together for the first time. “Since Gomber is a friend, I thought I can call him up at any point if I wish to discuss an idea,” recalls Shome. What’s unique about Sir is that a bulk of the film has been shot in one house with these two actors. “At times, it got too intense. It was like cabin fever, with two actors playing off each other. Also, we had to quickly move to the next scene. So, we could not dwell on the scenes and discuss if they worked or not. I don’t know how many times I changed my sari in a day,” says Shome. Talking about the process, Gomber says, Gera was confident about her script yet she was open to the actors experimenting.
After the critical success of the Chaitanya Tamhane-directed Court, Gomber was busy travelling across the world for its screenings, and was approached by many to produce their films. Though he produced the Ere Gowda-directed Balekempa, which premiered at the International Film Fest Rotterdam (IIFR), he kept waiting for acting offers. “Deep down, I want to be an actor, though I have produced two movies. I’m thrilled that I’m going to Cannes as an actor with a movie that has been officially selected,” says Gomber. Born in Jaipur, Gomber moved to Singapore at the age of 10 and studied theatre at Emerson College, Boston. He moved back to Mumbai after his graduation in 2004 and acted in some of the talked-about theatrical productions, including Hayavadana, Noises Off and Far Away.
Shome and Gomber, both mostly categorised as indie film actors, talk about coping with “fallow periods”. Just as Gomber had to wait for interesting acting assignments after Court, Shome too waited for long after delivering a powerful performance in Anup Singh’s Qissa, where she was a girl brought up as a boy by her father. “The way members of the crew move around — from indie cinema, television to ad production — why can’t we as actors be part of mainstream as well as indie cinema,” questions Gomber, adding that the experience has taught him to be more patient. “Our job as actors is to keep working. Each story will find its space, we should have faith,” he adds.
In acting, Shome believes there are “no shortcuts”. The actor who has sung for the first time in her next film, Chintu Ka Birthday, believes that she still needs to push herself. “Acting is an amalgamation of many skills” says Shome, adding that her cameo in Hindi Medium has given her more visibility than her critically acclaimed projects. Meanwhile, Gomber has more production work lined-up, including Tamhane’s next, which is likely go on the floors at the end of this year.