Her character doesn’t have a name. She is merely known as The Consultant. She terrorises a couple desperate to push their daughter into a posh Delhi school and willing to subject themselves to re-education. She teaches them the basics of deportment and fashion, and clicks her tongue in frank contempt when her instructions are misunderstood.
Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium is mostly a two-hander between Irrfan and Saba Qamar, but the sprawling comedy has enough room for other characters to blossom. Tillotama Shome is perfectly cast as The Consultant, and the movie’s healthy box office – Rs 39.55 crore since its release on May 19 – is a boost for the actress who has mostly slaved away in arthouse films that have been critically lauded but not widely circulated.
Shome is also part of the ensemble cast of Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut A Death in the Gunj, which will be released on June 2. She plays Bonnie, who is part of a family vacation marked by the spilling of secrets, illicit affairs, and death. The movie revolves around the consequences of the relentless bullying of Shutu (Vikrant Massey) by characters played by Ranveer Shorey, Gulshan Devaiah, Kalki Koechlin and Jim Sarbh.
The 38-year-old actress made a memorable debut in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) as Alice, the maid who gets hitched to the wedding planner. Shome has worked hard to prevent being typecast as a down-in-the-mouth character, and among her most celebrated roles is in Anup Singh’s Qissa (2013), in which she plays a woman brought up as a man. She is also appearing in What is Done, Is Done, Rajat Kapoor’s stage adaptation of Macbeth, and has numerous releases lined up over the next few months. The welcome spurt in work began with being signed up for Kapoor’s play, Shome told Scroll.in in an interview.
What attracted you to ‘Hindi Medium’, and what did you make of The Consultant?
Casting director Honey Trehan said, she is quite a bitch, and we thought you would be perfect for it. What do you mean, I asked. He said, I meant it in the way that you can be very cryptic and upper middle class and can carry off urban clothes. The character is snobby and authoritative. I wore nice clothes and my hair was long and luxurious.
I typically get offered the role of the activist or the victim of some social crisis. The usual references are the maid or the weird man-woman thing, but in real life, I am very urban. I was very touched by Honey’s concern for my future and said yes.
Did you identify with The Consultant?
It is a really important conversation. I empathise with the reverse snobbery of not knowing English. I used to be a part of the Asmita theatre group, but I didn’t know Hindi very well. I humiliated myself for a year. I was this English speaking person with a Jane Austen book in my bag. The aspiration of being fluent with a language was because of my need to be accepted by Bombay and Bollywood, so I got that about the character.
The role also marks a departure from your usual parts.
Monsoon Wedding is still the reference point – at best, there will be Qissa.
After playing Alice, I got flooded with roles for maids, social activists and tribal women. It was great work, but after some point, it became limiting that I didn’t get called for other kinds of roles. I don’t always want to play the victim and give intense looks silently.
When I heard that Hindi Medium was a comedy, I immediately told Honey that I would do it. My husband [Kunal Ross] said, great, you are finally in a comedy, your films are so intense.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not afraid of stereotypes. It’s just that our scripts are packed with prejudices, and as an actor, I am hungry for all kinds of roles.
When did you join the ensemble cast of ‘A Death in the Gunj’?
Konkona and I are dear friends. We met at college and had friends in common.
I heard the story of A Death in the Gunj when she wrote her first draft. I have gone through every draft, and during one of the narrations, she asked me if I would play Bonnie. I was so kicked that it was becoming a film from the story level.
My character is loosely based on Aparna Sen. Bonnie is sympathetic about Shutu [Vikrant Massey] but she can never shrug off the feeling of being guilty. I felt the sense of culpability in Bonnie by being a bystander to bullying.
I was worried about the role because I have no maternal instinct at all. I was worried about the scenes with the daughter, but it helped to see Konkona with her son. I also channelled the relationship between Konkona and Aparna. There is a kind of languid affection in the way they deal with each other and with other people.
I wanted to find the sur for the character, get to know the languidness of the afternoon teas and getting drunk by night and playing silly games. I am familiar with the whole thing of going away for holidays and being among the kind of people who smoke in front of their kids. Bonnie also has this very cultivated Calcutta way of speaking, which I had access to through my own aunts.
Most of you in the cast have worked with each other at some point or the other.
We all live in the Republic of Yari Road [in Andheri in Mumbai]. Many of us were in Rajat Kapoor’s play. All of us said yes because of Konkona. We were unburdened by the plot and were free to be. I loved the name Bonnie itself – it is a happy name and my character is happy, except for one intense scene. It is so quotidian and relaxed as opposed to every vein and nerve popping from my neck and forehead.
The three main points in the triangle are between the characters played by Ranveer, Kalki and Vikrant. I enjoyed supporting the triangle for it to work.
What is the decisive factor in choosing a role?
I have realised that I don’t have to have the pressure of being good at what I do – I just need to do what I do. This perfect project with everything in place is far and few between. I cannot wait for a decade to get that one part that checks all the boxes. It is important for me to know how films are being made in different ecosystems. I have always sat on the margins and felt left out. Working with these ecosystems was a humbling experience. When you are a part of it, then you have a greater right to critique it, if at all.
You have been working in several films over the past few months. What are they about?
I am in Rohena Gera’s Sir, which is in Hindi, Marathi and English. Sir stars Vivek Gomber and me and is a lovely experiment – 95% is Vivek and me in a house. Neither of has been in a film in which we are needed to be in almost every scene. You have so much hunger for a lead role and when it comes, you realise how much hard work it involves.
I am also in Anup Singh’s The Song of Scorpions and Nila Madhab Panda’s Kadvi Hawa – the latter is about a blind man and his relationship with the environment.
Soon after I signed Macbeth, I got a tonne of work. I have roles in the upcoming films Dheet Patangey and Union Leader, and I anchored an Epic channel series on documentaries. I have also appeared in one of the stories in Nandita Das’s Manto movie, the one based on The Hundred Watt Bulb.
I even appeared in an unreleased film by Owais Husain, in a song sequence choreographed by Bosco Caesar. I was wearing white and dancing under a waterfall, and there were apsaras and an elephant. I even lipsynced the song, composed by Amit Trivedi, and felt that I had arrived. But the movie wasn’t released.
What do you do in your down time?
I don’t like down time. I want to see myself working till I can’t work anymore. I read a lot. I have joined a friend in writing a screenplay together.
I am now going on a holiday. I feel like I ate a lot of fast food and gourmet meals together. I picked up a few pay cheques and made more money in a year than I have in a while. I now need to focus on the writing and figure out what to do next.