Tillotama Shome is currently riding the Qissa wave. Her portrayal of Kanwar, a girl who is raised like a boy in a conventional Punjabi home, got her high praise at all the international film festivals. Her last Bollywood outing, Shanghai, also came in for much appreciation. The actress gets talking about her big career breakthrough and turning her back on Bollywood stereotypes:
Qissa speaks about gender equality. It’s a subject that has not been attempted on the Indian screen before. How would you describe your role?
I play a character who is born a woman, but raised to be a man by her father. The daughter tries so very hard to be a good son to a father she deeply loves. The father-son relationship in the film is heartbreaking. At a macro level, the film and the role exposes the deep fissures and cannibalisation caused by the cruelty of partitions and separations.
At a micro-level, it is the hubris of a man challenging destiny with his unbending desire to have a son, a son who will carry on his lineage.
What was the biggest challenge about playing Kanwar?
The greatest challenge was living up to the high standards that Anup Singh sets through his own actions as a director. To play the part of Kanwar, I trained for seven months in Punjabi, swimming, kalari and driving!
Your frontal nude scene was widely discussed. What was on your mind during that scene? Has it?
In fact, I feel it has not been discussed at all. It was such an integral and organic part of the film and Anup dealt with such great sensitivity that the film was discussed and not the fact that there was frontal nudity. For me, that is a huge affirmation of Anup’s artistry and his story telling that took the gaze away from such discussions. When I read the script, I never once thought of asking Anup if he could delete that scene or get a body double. The day before we shot that scene, it occurred to me that my family might be uncomfortable with my decision and I did speak to them about it. My family trusted my decision and is very proud of the film.
Irrfan Khan plays your dad. What is the most valuable tip he gave you?
I actually admire Irrfan so deeply that I find myself unable to articulate how I feel about him. I revisited a lot of his films as I wanted to pick up some of his body language (a very tall order). Irrfan’s humility is that he does not give you any tips, despite being such a celebrated actor.
The only thing he has told me repeatedly is that, “Be patient, everything takes time. Don’t play the tragedy queen when things don’t go your way!”