How far can we take love?

Actor Tillotama Shome asks this all-important question through her new film on social conflicts in human relationships, Is Love Enough? Sir. By Chahak Mittal

Marriage is a highly regulated institution in Indian society, even when it is a result of a love match. Suddenly, it becomes a matter of a social contract, where the whole caste, class and education dynamic comes into play. We may claim urban aspirations and refinements but class differences in love and relationships aren’t typical of Jane Austen’s England. They exist just as overtly and not so overtly even today.

Actor Tillotama Shome’s forthcoming feature film, directed by Rohena Gera, Is Love Enough? Sir, revolves around the relationship between a rich man (played by Vivek Gomber) and a housemaid (played by Tillotama). The latter struggles to acknowledge her feelings for Vivek, keeping in mind the restrictions and prejudices of society, something she doesn’t want to be defined by. The film comments on the deep-rooted class differences in India and how a relationship between two people from different strata is looked at only in an exploitative set-up and never part of a normal discourse. The interesting bit about this film is that the housemaid is as much aware and doesn’t want to cross the line for her own sake rather than giving in to the comforts of a rich life.

How difficult was it internalising this conflict? Says Tillotama, “Love, they say, is blind. But I think there are a lot of factors — social, propriety, status, a person’s background — which matter more. Marriage is a social contract and all these things are properly scanned before marriages get fixed. So I think, love is not so blind at all. It’s actually quite harshly determined. Like any other contract, there is a lot of scrutiny even here. It is not only about love but about a lot of things other than the pure emotion it is meant to be. We will never choose to fall in love across the class barrier. Which is why the film questions — is love enough for two people to be together?”

Throughout her career graph, Tillotama has embodied characters from the lower strata of society, the last being Nayantara’s Necklace. Why did she say yes to Sir? “When I was offered the role, I felt the story was about the very thing that we would criticise if it happened in reality or even feel guilty about. We live in a society where we judge people who work for us or belong to the lower strata and we cannot imagine falling in love with them. I felt that this is the reality of the world I live in. No matter how progressive and liberal I think I am, ultimately, I have this prejudice that breathes and grows inside me. Even after watching so many great films or reading books, I myself would not choose to have feelings for someone who works at my home. I can watch Parasite and be blown away by it but I can’t pretend that I don’t have biases in my own head. It would never allow me to fall in love with such a person because of the work s/he does,” she tells us.

Certainly. But that leaves us with another question — how far can we take it even if we do fall in love with our house-help? Tillotama feels that it completely depends on a person’s choice. She says, “It depends on how much can I transgress? How much am I willing to loiter or take on society’s judgement? How much courage and strengths do I have to battle the prejudices and comments that society’s going to throw at me for the rest of my life? It’s because I have done something that doesn’t fit into people’s idea of propriety. Hence, it comes down to a deeply personal choice.”

At the same time, the Hindi Medium actor feels that one cannot be prescriptive about it. “We are not talking about making inter-class relationships mandatory. It is not some moral science lesson. It is a choice that each one of us needs to reconcile with deep within ourselves and accordingly decide whether we can we live with it. Decisions happen when you challenge your own mentality. So we cannot be prescriptive about it ki ‘karna hi chahiye’,” she adds.

Films like Bobby (1973), Raja Hindustani (1996), Laadla (1994) and more have been examples of the class divide though all of them were done in a masala entertainer format. What stands out in Sir is the process of realisation and actualisation of the choice in the real world. Says Tillotama, “In Sir, the explanation is more from the point of time when they acknowledge their feelings for each other. It is about acknowledging each other and becoming suddenly aware of their desires and acting upon them. In a typical love story, girl and boy meet and realise that ‘oh, there’s something between them,’ kiss and follow it up with a ‘happily ever after’ phase. But here, only the acknowledgment of their desire is more important for them because this isn’t something they had planned or expected. They certainly don’t know how to articulate it or do anything about it. It’s a helpless situation and it’s almost becoming a prisoner of your own desires because the expression of it is not something that the society would embrace happily or even have any taste for.”

She adds that such an affair is only something that can be accepted in the world of pornography in India. “If you search or talk about such stories, the only thing that comes up is pornography. I realised that the only situation in which we can imagine a home servant and the owner together is in the most exploitative context of pornography,” says she.

Be it Nayantara’s Necklace, where Tillotama’s character is a social wannabe who faces a moral question in the end or Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, where her character’s life is disrupted and shaped by India’s brutal Partition, Tillotama’s roles have always pushed the frontiers of societal gaze. How does she select her roles? “If I get to learn a new accent, dialogue, language or some kind of action/physical activity, I would definitely go for it. I like to constantly add something new to my skill set. The other major factor is the script. It has to be the hero. If it’s not a hero on the pages, it can’t be that on the screen. These are two primarily important things that I look for. But yes, at the same time, I don’t want to be the flag-bearer of independent, serious cinema. I am an actor and don’t want to take myself too seriously. I am very much open to do all kinds of works,” she tells us.

Well, her recent role in web series, Mentalhood, of a loud-mouthed Punjabi woman proves that. She says, “She may be loud and crass but she is still a human.” And she is a humane artiste.

(The film releases on March 20.)

The Pioneer

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