“When Tillotama Shome smiles, she lights up the screen. But at times, she can disappear and make herself insignificant on screen when she wants,” says Rohena Gera, writer-director of ‘Is Love Enough? Sir,’ about the lead actor of her debut film. The film, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival and had theatrical releases in 24 countries like Japan, Israel, France etc., will finally make it to Indian theatres on November 13.
“My film has been made for theatres and I want to directly connect with the Indian audience,” says Gera on why she skipped the OTT route.
The film centers around an unusual and sensitive love story between an America returned Ashwin (played by Vivek Gomber, recently seen in Mira Nair’s Suitable Boy) and his live-in maid, Ratna, a young widow enacted by Tillotama Shome (Qissa and Death in the Gunj). It is not that kind of a love story about a Prince Charming, who deigns to rescue a poverty-stricken maid victimized by her circumstances. Instead, it is about two people who come together on an equal footing.
They are two people who nudge each other forward, reveals Gera, an unabashed romantic, who believes in the power of love to make people the best versions of themselves. If Ratna is battling to rise above her situation and realize her dreams, Ashwin too is boxed inside his gilded, privileged cage, and has to come back to India to look after the family business though his heart is set on becoming a writer.
“Honestly, when I thought of Tillotama for the role, I was scared to approach her. She had such a body of work and I did not want her to think I was typecasting her in the maid role,” says Gera. Shome first shot into the public eye as a shy maid in a gawky romance with the wedding organizer in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. But, luckily, Shome loved the script of Is Love Enough? Sir, and absolutely loved Ratna’s character, who maintains her own sense of self though she finds herself in undignified situations. “I knew she will get all the subtleties of the role and inhabit the character,” says Gera, who believes Shome has nailed the role, as much as Gomber has done.
In an interview with The Federal, Shome says that she goes by two criteria when she chooses a role. “To me, the script is the real hero. I need to connect with it and secondly, I need to trust the director. You can then be really free and know you will not fall,” says Shome.
In Is Love Enough…, Shome allows Gera to guide her to ensure that this relationship between employer and maid with its “exploitative context”, does not turn voyeuristic. “The topic is very sensitive, so Gomber and I were nervous. If a single gaze or a touch is wrong, everything goes wrong,” says Shome, who found just sleazy content on the Internet on romantic relationships between employer and maid. So, Gomber and she worked hard to ensure that every scene and move were measured and had a sensibility about it.
The actor finds Ratna’s character inspirational. “No matter how difficult her situation gets, she has an inherent sense of dignity, which is what Ashwin falls in love with and allows her to dream. I really look up to her strength and dignity,” says Shome. “There is one shot, which highlights the myopic, bigoted, classist point of view of the privileged class,” she says passionately. This is when Gomber (Ashwin) asks her character Ratna, ‘if she wants to become a tailor? To which, Ratna replies, no I want to be a designer. Why, don’t you think I can become one?’
“This conversation is so telling, it reveals the depth of our prejudices,” she says. “Sometimes, we think we are being well-intentioned but the way we treat the people who cook food for us and who we allow into our bedrooms. It can become so patronizing. Will we allow our daughters to date the driver of the house? This script made me uncomfortable and made me reflect on my prejudices and my sense of entitlement. We need to first identify the problem, to be able to change ourselves. I have a feeling of being complicit and being part of the problem,” says Shome, about the effect this script had on her.
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“Why do we assume a person’s occupation determines their worth or social capital?” she asks. However, the film is not a lecture but it is a love story crossing class boundaries.
A challenge while playing this role for this Bengali girl was also to learn Marathi. Like she learnt Punjabi for Qissa and is currently learning Assamese for director Rima Das’ film (her next). “It is not easy to learn languages but I have come to accept that I have to work very hard unlike some others. I may have some shortcomings but I make up for it with my hard work,” says this actor, who has carved a niche for herself in independent cinema.
Does she find more opportunities for actors like herself, today? Shome replies, “There is lot more work, a glasnost and an energy. Anyway, it was high time we stopped swimming in the same little pond. There is quantity, but we still lack quality work. Quality requires time, it is a creative, collaborative effort, which requires tremendous amount of commitment and time. If you are not willing to do that, the film will not be good. We need more discernment in Indian cinema. I do feel actors yearn to be part of work that can transform you as a person. That is not easy to come by.”
Qissa, in which, she acted along with the late Irrfan Khan, was one such special film. On Khan, Shome says: “He was a spiritual person asking certain kind of questions through his work. I felt he was searching for larger meaning in this racket.”
The film, Qissa allowed the actors to change the way they looked at life. “It was a very rare opportunity and an enriching process,” says Shome, who has signed up to work with the same director Anup Singh on his next film.
It seems ‘quality with directors who have a unique sense of their craft’, are coming her way. Besides Rima Das’ next film, she has bagged acclaimed DOP Saumyananda Sahi’s debut feature film as well.
Shome has also worked on commercial projects like Mentalhood, a Hindi drama series for ALT Balaji, where she plays an over-the-top Punjabi mom. “It was a great challenge to play a loud Punjabi mom. But they have their complexities too, it is how you humanize them. Life is too short and I don’t want to take myself so seriously and like to explore comedy. I don’t want to be a flag bearer of any kind of cinema,” she says, edgily.
On director Gera’s comment on being able to make herself small on screen and disappear, Shome says that this stems from her introverted nature and from not wanting to take up too much space. However, she also has to portray Ratna as being confident and dynamic nurturing big dreams. And, that is the ‘push and pull’ shades in the character which she seems to enjoy.