(L to R) Tillotama Shome, Swapna Dutt and Priyanka Dutt
In between movies and web series, Tillotama Shome is into gardening, does embroidery, reads passages in Hindi of her favourite authors. All of these things teach her patience and perseverance. “It’s like an animal in hibernation, collecting its reserves. It’s like the dead twigs you see on the surface of a garden, but beneath that there are beautiful green shoots,” says Shome. Now, even when she goes on set, she takes her fabric, threads and her hoop. Acting is opportunity meeting talent, and few people know that better than Shome, whose first film, Monsoon Wedding, in 2001, was universally loved. It didn’t get her much work in Mumbai though, where she faced a series of rejections. Four years in New York saw her studying at New York University and then working with students—she doesn’t call them inmates—at the high-security Rikers Island. She saw the worst face of the American social system that stigmatised people on the basis of race. She returned to India in 2008 and worked on some magnificent movies, notably Qissa (2013) with Anup Singh, A Death in the Gunj (2016) with Konkona Sen Sharma, and with Rohena Gera in Sir (2018). Qissa was like film school for her, she says. “Anup gave me such a peti-full of tools [toolbox] to work with that I will always be grateful.” As the girl who so desperately wants to be the boy her father (played by Irrfan Khan) had always wanted, she was heartbreaking in Qissa. In A Death in the Gunj, she was stellar as Bonnie, the hysterical mum, in a stalwart cast. Later, in Sir, which came to Netflix two years after it wowed the world at film festivals, she was the personification of dignity as the maid with whom the master fell in love, not for a moment making it seem exploitative or crass. Sir heralded more visibility in series such as Delhi Crime Season 2, where she plays a beauty parlour worker whose aspirations are thwarted. “Sir came to me when I’d reached a point where I was working and not counting on the validation. And now in the last two years, I have got more work than I did in the last 20 years,” she says, with a laugh. She’s in full prep mode right now, even as she gets praise for her role in Delhi Crime Season 2. She has two web series coming up and a feature film. As an actor, she reads the script, takes notes every time she reads it, works on the dialect if she has to, but at the end of the day, the performance becomes a dance with everyone coming together. “I learnt so much from Anup about how to approach a text, about what not to do—sometimes you just have to react and keep yourself open to the moment,” she says. She recalls a scene where Irrfan has to figuratively swallow her character in Qissa and he has to lift her as if he is doing so, while she hides at his feet. “And I saw myself literally at his beautiful feet, being in that moment,” she adds. When you see the movie, as you should, you will get goosebumps.
Scene and Heard
One of the major differences between the north and the south film industries is that the latter is not censoring itself all the time. Sita Ramam, released in Telugu and Tamil, and then in a Hindi dub, is an example of this. Made by sisters Swapna and Priyanka Dutt, when they heard the story from director Hanu Raghavapudi, it was a pure love story for them. They didn’t think that the leads onscreen were playing Hindu and Muslim characters or that Rashmika Mandanna’s character was a Pakistani who lived in London. “We just went by our instinct,” says Swapna, “that this is a film we would like to watch and which would make our families proud.” It does indeed, with soulful acting from their Mahanati (2018) collaborator Dulquer Salmaan and Hindi film actor Mrunal Thakur. The sisters say failure was their best teacher and it happened because they tried to do what they thought people would like to watch rather than going by their gut, which they started with their first movie together under the new banner, Yevade Subramanyam (2015), also directed, like Mahanati, by Priyanka’s husband, the talented Nag Ashwin. Swapna, who studied at Ohio University, and Priyanka, who went to the University of California, Los Angeles, divide their work. Swapna handles the business and Priyanka is the more creative person. Currently, they are knee-deep in their fourth movie, starring Prabhas, Deepika Padukone and Amitabh Bachchan. How is it working with Prabhas? Priyanka says: “Everything you’ve heard about his generosity and kindness is true. You have to keep asking yourself, is it his production or yours? He makes you feel so comfortable.”