|Vinita Kamte; (top) Tillotama Shome in Shanghai
Tillotama Shome plays the stoic Aruna Ahemadi in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai. A t2 chat with the actress of films like Monsoon Wedding, Shadows of Time and Gangor…
How did Shanghai happen?
I got a call to audition for it one day and I went ahead and auditioned and got the role. I have watched all of Dibakar’s (Banerjee, the director of Shanghai) films and I am a huge fan. I have been wanting to work with him for a long time. It didn’t work out with LSD (Love Sex Aur Dhokha) because Dibakar wanted only new faces for that film.... For Shanghai, I would also like to credit Atul Mongia, the casting director, because he did a fabulous job in picking each person for their roles. The fact that Shanghai has made so much impact is because everyone was perfectly cast.
What was Dibakar’s brief to you about Aruna?
Dibakar’s brief to me and to the film’s costume designers Rushi (Sharma) and Manoshi (Nath) was that my character had to be based on that of Vinita Kamte (the widow of Ashok Kamte, the police officer who was slain in the Mumbai attack of 26/11). It wasn’t just the superficial element of her look, Dibakar also wanted me to watch Vinita and basically keep the public face that she maintains even in the midst of so much tragedy. She doesn’t make a meal out of her tragedy and is very quiet, matter-of-fact and focused in the manner in which she goes about seeking justice for her husband.
I remember seeing this interview of hers where the reporter asked her that it must be very tough for her to deal with all this, but she just brushed the question aside and started talking about getting justice for him, which I thought was a great entry point for me to understand Aruna Ahemadi who also suffers a huge loss in the public eye (when her husband Dr Ahemadi, played by Prosenjit, is mowed down by a truck). So Dibakar’s brief was to primarily capture that about Vinita Kamte.
How emotionally challenging was it to enact the scene where you are composed in public following the accident of your husband, but break down uncontrollably once you lock yourself up in the bathroom?
Dibakar is one of those directors who will tell you exactly what he wants, which is very different from the kind of filmmakers I have worked with till now. They will first let you do what you want to do and then it’s up to them in terms of what they want to keep or leave out. With Dibakar, I was quite taken aback initially because he gave me very rigid directions like ‘You have to stand here, you have to open the tap, wash your face….’ He broke down the action and that is something that I found a little claustrophobic because I wanted to do so many other things! But Dibakar gave me the whole backstory about Aruna… about what her life could have been… all the possibilities… in a very passionate speech just before I went for that take. And so even when I did exactly what he told me, I still felt it was so much my own.
Though it was portrayed very subtly, there is the pressure-cooker tension between your character and Kalki’s character (who plays Shalini, Dr Ahemadi’s student and lover) throughout the film…
What was challenging about this character was not portraying the scenes that were written, but showing what was not there… the friction between the Ahemadis... what the marriage must have been like. She is well aware of the fact that he has scores of young women surrounding him all the time who look up to him as god. Obviously this is not the first time that she is seeing someone googly-eyed around her husband. Dibakar built very beautifully what we don’t see of Mrs Ahemadi. She is someone who is not just pushing the action of the film forward, but has a story of her own.
As far as the friction with Shalini is concerned, I would like to mention production designer Vandana Kataria who really helped me in the scene after the accident when Shalini hands over Dr Ahemadi’s wallet to Aruna. Although she knew that it would not be visible in the frame, Vandana put an Old Spice bottle along with Shalini’s perfumes and creams on the dressing table of the room in which Shalini and Aruna were sitting. That, in a way, was an unspoken sign to Aruna about the closeness that Shalini and Dr Ahemadi shared… about what must have gone on in that room between them…on that very bed on which they were sitting…. That really helped me in that scene.
You don’t share any screen space with Prosenjit though…
Even though Prosenjit and I don’t share any scenes, the triangle between Dr Ahemadi, Aruna and Shalini is felt very vividly through the film. Aruna, in fact, wouldn’t exist without the dynamic between Prosenjit and Kalki’s characters. The tension between the three of them is actually ticking away like a time bomb throughout.
Most of my scenes were only with Kalki and she’s just great to work with. She’s a lovely human being and a huge talent… no airs at all. Abhay (Deol) and Emraan (Hashmi) too… they are just so secure as actors. I never felt I was working with stars but with actors who are very sure of where they are.
The film has opened to rave reviews. What is the kind of feedback that you are getting?
I have actually gone off to Pune to be away from it all! I have done my part as an actor and for the promotions and I left for Pune on Friday evening to chill with friends. Of course, there has been feedback on Twitter where people have said stuff like ‘scene stealer’ and all that…. There has been some really warm praise… getting a lot of calls for my role and for the film.
Will this now mean more of you in Hindi films?
(Laughs) I wish I knew! All I know is that I am very proud to be a part of Shanghai and very humbled by the appreciation it has got. If it translates into more work for me here, then hurrah! But I am in a good place where I have two films out this year… one is Qaushiq Mukherjee’s (Q) Tasher Desh and the other is Qissa opposite Irrfan Khan.
See, the primary reason why I left India after Monsoon Wedding and Shadows of Time was because there was no work here for independent actors like me. I didn’t see the point in playing mild variations of Alice (of Monsoon Wedding) again and again.
And then what brought me back to India from New York after four years was the realisation that there is very interesting cinema happening here now. Filmmakers like Vishal Bhardwaj and Dibakar are doing such great work and I really want to be a part of this resurgence in Hindi cinema.