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Activist theatre

Alice in thunderland

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BRIGHT AND BOLD: Tillotama Shome's roots lie in activist theatre

Tillotama Shome, who plays a small but strong role in 'Shanghai', says she only picks scripts that manage to 'talk' to her.

Remember Alice the maid in Monsoon Wedding (2001)? She was the love interest of the gendachomping tentwallah, Vijay Raaz. It was a small role but she managed to collar the attention of audiences and garner critical acclaim. She has now moved out of the periphery and moved into larger roles. Tillotama Shome, who made the critics sit up and take note of her in the Mira Nair film, plays the hard-nosed, gritty wife of social activist Dr Ahmedi (Prosenjit Chatterjee) in Shanghai which was released in theatres on Friday.

Shome's character in the film is modelled on Vinita Kamte, wife of former Mumbai additional commissioner of police Ashok Kamte, who was killed in action during the 28/11 Mumbai terror attack four years ago. Aruna Ahmedi is a contrast to the typical "wife" in Hindi movies. Once a romantic and Dr Ahmedi's muse, she is now a no-nonsense woman hardened by the life's experiences. She is the girl who hero-worshipped her husband - only to later discover that he was human.
"There was a matter-of-factness and steering clear of emotionalism that was required, " says Shome about her Shanghai role. "The character of Aruna is modelled on, though not based on, Vinita Kamte. We have tried to incorporate the same courage, the same simplicity as we saw in her. "

Aruna is also director Dibakar Banerjee's favourite character in the film. He says she remains one of his most satisfactory transformations of script to screen, and hopes to make a 'sequel' about her, Dr Ahmedi and Shalini (played by Kalki Koechlin) based on love, infidelity, ideals and politics.

"Tillotama was ideal for the role of Aruna because it is rare to find actresses with such depth of emotion and fearlessness, " says Banerjee. "Actors often tend to go beyond the scope of the screenplay to garner sympathy with the audience which Tillotama does not do. She goes for the jugular, the meat of the character. She also isn't afraid of going into spaces where very few actors want to go. "

Born in Kolkata, Shome grew up all over India since her father was with the Indian Air Force. She went to Delhi's Lady Shri Ram College where she dabbled in theatre and became a part of Arvind Gaur's Asmita theatre group. It was then that Monsoon Wedding happened. Post her debut, Shome went off to study theatre in New York University. It turned out to be a life-changing experience.

"Being among so many talented people in a city known for brutal competition was a humbling experience, " she says. After her course, she began teaching theatre at the City University of New York, where her work entailed teaching prison inmates at the infamous Riker's Island.

Shome also did a few movies after Monsoon Wedding, including India-based international films like Florian Gallenberger's Shadows of Time and Italo Spinelli's Gangor. Her biggest film was the 2011 Gul Panag starrer Turning 30, a woman-centric film produced by Prakash Jha in which she plays a close friend of the lead character.

A rather picky actor, Shome says she only picks up scripts that "talk to her". Her next film is in Bengali: Tasher Desh, based on the story by Rabindranath Tagore and directed by Q (Qaushiq Mukherjee), the rather radically alternate director of Gandu (2010). She plays the role of Boro Rani, a strong matriarchal figure in the film.

Bollywood today is a changed place but even then where does Shome see herself in its rather intimidating hierarchy? She says the rat race is not for her. "If you see everything as a food chain, eventually you are going to end up pretty sad, " she says.

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