More than a decade ago we saw her first as the pretty and petite Alice in Monsoon Wedding, but over the years Tillotama Shome has emerged into a powerful performer. The 32-year-old award winning actress will soon be seen in internationally-acclaimed Qissa. In an exclusive chat she tells us how she simplistically slipped into the complex Kanwar Singh, a daughter who is raised up as a son.

Tillotama Shome (Photo Credit: Ishaan Nair)

Tillotama Shome (Photo Credit: Ishaan Nair)

How did the role of Kanwar Singh – the daughter who is brought up as a son – come to you?

The role almost wouldn’t have come to me because the age of the role that Anup Singh (director) was looking was someone post puberty, between 18 and 25. I was already 32 so I was quite sure I wouldn’t fit the role but he asked to meet me anyway, just as an actor. We met, started talking and he asked me about my life, where I came from, what made me who I am. And in that conversation something made  him narrate the story of Qissa to me. Once he narrated the story I was completely touched.

What was it that drew you to the role and script of Qissa?

So many things. The larger devastation of the partition, which forces a man to have an obsessive desire to have a son. I know we live in a country where a male child is preferred over a girl child. It is because of the brutalisation that man has gone through already, of losing what he considered to be home, to having to leave everything that he considered his roots and thrown somewhere else. So the only way he can establish a sense of security is by having a son. I think we all know that this is not right – wanting a son over a daughter.

But it’s not about right or wrong only, right? It’s about why do people feel this way and what drives them to it? For me, the film created an understanding of why man is so obsessed of having a son. And, of course, the challenge of playing a woman who is raised as a man was a once in a lifetime opportunity. But more than everything, it was Anup’s demeanour, the passion for his story and the fact that he wanted to make it in Punjabi instead of making it in Hindi. He struggled for twelve years to get the funding to make a film in Punjabi, he could have done it much earlier in Hindi. So all these factors together made me do the role.

What kind of physical and psychological preparation did you undergo for the role?

The physical preparations went on for seven months. I was learning Punjabi from a wonderful teacher called Jaswinder. I also was learning Kalaripayattu, the oldest form of martial arts, which gave my body a certain sense of balance without making it too masculine. Then I learnt swimming and driving, as Kanwar has to drive a truck in the film. So I had Kalari classes in morning followed by driving practice, then swimming, Punjabi classes and then I sat with my lines in the evening. These were the physical preparations.

In terms of the psychological preparations, Anup helped me a lot with that, in a very beautiful and simple way. First, he asked me not to play the manly man. Kanwar could have been played in two ways. He could have got an actor who is big built, already masculine-looking and only reveal in the end that she is a girl. He wanted the audience to feel the struggle of this child, Kanwar, who goes to such extents to get her father’s love. He didn’t want me to convincingly play a guy. I had asked him why he chose me, because I am so small, petite and barely 5 feet 2 inches tall. He said that a lot of women in our country go through a lot of violence even though they are not physically masculine-looking. A woman in most of India lifts heavy weights at construction sites, lifts heavy buckets of water et al.  So, he didn’t want a convenient way out. That was one thing he told me that don’t try and play a man in a false and caricaturish way. He asked me to just focus on being a good son.

Second, he asked me to focus on how Kanwar holds himself when in the public eye and how he holds himself in the private moments, to play that differently. So my shoulders would slouch when I am alone, I become softer when I am with Neeli (Rasika Duggal). That gave me another insight into the character. He helped me with Kanwar’s walk. He also asked me to watch Dilip Kumar’s two films: Aan and Tarana. While watching both the films I finally found what Anup was actually asking me to look for certain gestures of Dilipji. When he is cuffing his buttons he does it very meticulously, even if he is folding his handkerchief the movements are very precise. I picked up some of those things for the role, but Anup wanted me to look for more. Finally I took a guess, right before the shoot, I told Anup that Kanwar’s character is very dark and sombre but Dilip Kumar, who has an incredible smile, smiles when he is actually not feeling that great to hide his real emotions. I asked him if I could use that for Kanwar. In the script there is nowhere that Kanwar is smiling, even when he is with Neeli. That’s exactly what Anup wanted me to find. I asked him why he didn’t tell me earlier while I was preparing, to which he said that then I would not have had the joy of discovering it myself.

Tilotoma Shome

In Qissa your character gets married to a woman. Did you feel awkward flirting with a woman onscreen? Were you comfortable about this aspect of the character?

You know I never looked at it as flirtatious. Kanwar has not been embraced, touched or loved by anyone other than his father. The mother, brother and sisters never got close to him. I think Neeli was the first person outside that house, which was like a prison in many ways, who had that kind of warmth and vitality towards him. So, I just thought of engaging with this warmth. It didn’t matter whether it was a man or a woman. And Anup never asked me to look at it otherwise. Rasika and I would rehearse our lines all the time. We were in such beautiful locations but all we would be doing is rehearsing because we were just so excited at the wonderful opportunity that we really wanted to do our best.

We worked so hard and recognised in each other that there was the willingness to keep trying which built a friendship / relationship between us. It was neither flirtatious or anything. There was affection and I was just responding to that warmth. However when we saw the film, especially the scene where Neeli teaches Kanwar how to be a woman – she shows how to drape a dupatta and walk like a woman – we realised that there was such a sensual quality in that relationship. I think the way Anup created the images, it had a very sensual undertone, and that’s not what we were working towards. Again, it was something that was discovered and it was how Anup brought it out.

You have stayed away from the typical song and dance movies and created a niche as an actress. Did you plan for it or it happened by chance?

No, you know I have never planned for anything. I also feel that the mainstream and independent film dichotomy is too simplistic, there are films that are crossing over and there aren’t clear lines anymore. I don’t get offered song and dance films otherwise I would do it. Owais Hussain, MF Hussain’s son, had made this film (unreleased) which was shot by Santosh Sivan where I do a song under the waterfall. I loved doing it. So, it’s not like I am against song and dance, there was a lot of substance in the film and it was celebratory. I have not adopted this image of being a fiercely independent actress who will not do commercial Bollywood cinema. It is just how people have labelled me. I am quite happy to stand under the waterfall and sing a song again.

Does the length of a role play determine your decision?

You can be in a film throughout and still not make an impression. It’s not the length of the role, it is the role itself that matters. Monsoon Wedding released twelve years ago but people still remember Dubey and Alice’s (her character’s name) love story. I have never been concerned about the length of the role. What I am concerned about is – does the role have enough conflict in it, enough meat in it that it would be memorable. Is the character struggling with something, am I am struggling with something in playing it, that determines my decision.

Tilotoma Shome1

Speaking of struggle, you seem to have an affinity towards challenging roles, like Children of War, Tasher Desh and, now, Qissa. Is it something you consciously look for in the roles you play?

I think everyone wants characters which are complex and fun. You know when you have that feeling that ‘Oh my god I don’t know how I am going to be able to do this’, that’s when things are really exciting, right? But again, I haven’t chosen it, it comes to me.

What was the most challenging part while doing Qissa?

I thought the most challenging thing would be learning Punjabi and playing a man. But what turned out to be the real challenge was, neither the Punjabi nor playing the man, just understanding the inner world of this creature, who is neither man nor woman. I put so much focus on getting the Punjabi right because I am a Bengali – if you don’t get the language everything gets spoiled. But very soon I realised that the actual struggle is in the honesty with which I understand the inner life of Kanwar.

Any films you watched recently and wished you were part of it?

All of Anurag Kashyap’s films have such powerful women characters. Dibaker Banerjee’s film too. It was such a pleasure to work with Dibaker in Shanghai. I am dying to see Kanu Behl’s Titli. There are so many filmmakers who are making films, much more than before, which have powerful women characters. But I can never think of a character that I think I can do better than someone. I always watch and feel joyous that finally such a part is written for a woman. So in theory I would love to be in all of them.

What are the other films you are working on?

A film called Ludo by Qaushiq Mukherjee, then there’s Sold, directed by Jeffery brown and produced by Emma Thompson and Wonder Boy, directed by Soumendra Padhi, which also has Manoj Bajpai.