In Sir, now streaming on Netflix, Tillotama Shome plays a house help who couldn’t be more different from the one she made her debut with in Monsoon Wedding (2001). The stark differences in their personalities shine through in two scenes that parallel each other. When Alice in Monsoon Wedding crashes into the wedding planner carrying a tray full of chai glasses, it’s a bold, deliberate ploy, meant to attract his attention and get him to notice her. When the reticent Ratna in Sir spills wine on a guest, it’s an accident, met with immediate recrimination by the rich, snobs who otherwise treat her like an ornamental fixture.
“Alice and Ratna are so very different, just like no two doctors or teachers are alike. Their professions may be the same but they’re not. I was not afraid of their similarities, I was wary of being typecast in playing a certain class again and again. But once I read the script of Sir, I knew I had to do it. I was guilty of many things that the film critiqued and it was my way of loosening my own biases,” says Shome. The actress doesn’t let Ratna become the sum of preconceived notions that the other characters have about her. The character harbours dreams of becoming a designer, fiercely advocates for her younger sister’s education and sparks a tender, wordless romance with her boss (Vivek Gomber).
Now 20 years into her career, Shome looks back and talks about what kept her going and how Netflix is opening new doors for her:
Sir‘s #1 on Netflix, people in different countries are watching it, Hrithik Roshan’s tweeted about it. Do you feel like a whole new audience has now discovered you?
I saw Hrithik Roshan’s tweet an hour later and by then there was so much activity on my phone, that the poor thing needed a recharge. It was very nice of him to support an independent film. These bridges between mainstream and independent cinema need such bridges and gestures. Sir dropping on Netflix was my first experience of the enormous power of OTT, and how it can travel into people’s homes and hearts in numbers that are mind-boggling. But the way people have reacted to the film, made it their own and shared how it’s making them feel across class, gender, occupation, that has been truly a surprise and very overwhelming.
— Hrithik Roshan (@iHrithik) January 15, 2021
Has it translated into good offers coming your way?
There are a lot more phone calls for sure. I’m reading a lot every day and suddenly feeling very professional and busy. So that’s a welcome change. Of everything I have read so far, I’m very excited about three projects. The diversity in the languages of those projects has been very heartening.
Was there a scene in Sir that you found the hardest to crack?
What was hard was not so much a particular scene, but knowing what happened right before and after any scene that we had to shoot. Because there are no ‘big moments’ in the film, but a slow shift of emotions between the two characters. So everything had to be very carefully calibrated. The majority of the film is set in a house, we open the door and walk the corridor many times, in many scenes, but each time the equation between the two characters keeps shifting. So everything changes even though we’re doing the same thing. So we had to carry the scene that happened before, for every scene we shot next, in a very muscular and palpable way.
There’s another scene that I love — when you see the woman coming out of Ashwin’s room in the morning. It’s so easy to imagine the thoughts running through Ratna’s head at that moment. How did you approach that scene and even the one in which they kiss? Both are moments of great conflict.
It’s all in the script. I stood there and I saw her. That’s it. What is Ratna feeling when she sees that woman? Is she jealous? Is she allowed to be jealous? More importantly is she really allowed to feel anything for Ashwin in the first place? I just stood there with all these questions and asked them. There were no answers.
The kiss was professional and easy. But it was like any other scene for the two of us — difficult and requiring of our complete focus. Gomber and I are good friends who’ve known each other and our respective partners for a while. So there was a great deal of trust, but also a sense of responsibility towards each other. And as actors who have done scenes of intimacy before, we checked in on each other’s level of comfort and boundaries. And like any other scene, we did it in a few different ways.
How do you look back on and assess your career, 20 years on?
I survived. I am here and still doing what I like doing best. It’s been bizarre and poetic. I have been super lucky to have met and worked with some of the coolest people in this world and few of them have become long-standing friends. The cross section of people I have worked with are so eclectic and diverse, that I’m getting more and more comfortable with not fitting in. The parts I am getting now, I could have only done now. It’s so clear.
You’ve spoken about how Hindi isn’t your first language and so you read Hindi for two hours every day. Can you talk about the work and hustle that has gone into building a 20-year-long career?
Learning languages. Preparing for auditions like I have got the part and am going for the shoot. Learning to spend less time crying about not getting the job. Fighting the need for peer approval and instead just focusing on enriching my life by learning something everyday. During my out-of-work days, I used to have a calendar that I marked when I messaged a director about wanting to work with them. I kept that calendar as I did not want to get on their nerves and message them too often. And when I got work, I was so hungry for it, that it felt like it was my first and last film. I was all in. My partner patiently supported me as I disappeared into that cave. Even though the volume of work has increased, the sense of wonder has not because I don’t take any of this for granted. I will always have to work hard but it will be fun. Gardening and acting both require patience and I love them both.
Your films have garnered critical acclaim at festivals — Sir premiered at the Cannes Critics Week, Qissa was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival — but box-office success back home has been elusive. You’ve said that you’re used to your films not being watched in India. What has it taken to get to that point of making peace with that?
Primarily being okay with not having peer approval or validation for the hours and years you are putting in, in your own country. It’s a good thing too, because then you appreciate it a lot when it comes and are also okay when it doesn’t. What really helps is the trust of the directors who’ve worked with me. They filled me with a sense of wonder about this world of performance and life in general. That allows you to survive the isolation and yet not be cynical about it.
You’ve spoken about how it’s been hard to land a role in a commercial Bollywood film and that maybe if you worked on being more sociable, lovable and bubbly, it would happen. Has it become easier to knock on those doors and get an answer now?
I feel so many things in a particular moment and they are irrelevant sometime later. I just know that if I’m happy doing what I do, then my chances of surviving this industry as a long-distance runner are far better. Over time, I have perhaps a little bit more access to people I did not have before. I can only hope my work reaches them and does the knocking. The answer is clear — I am here and I will work hard in whatever I choose to do.