Tillotama Shome, who features in two impressive roles this week — Lust Stories 2 & The Night Manager, is crafting her own little streaming catalogue of whimsy and brilliance, writes Manik Sharma.
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IN A SCENE from Konkona Sen Sharma’s The Mirror, a short from the Netflix anthology Lust Stories 2, Isheeta, played by Tillotama Shome, implores her boss to let her leave work early. “There is something wrong with me. For the last couple of months, I’ve been getting these pounding headaches in the afternoon,” she claims. At first, it feels like a fairly straightforward excuse to get out of work. Look closely at Shome’s body language, however, and the word she emphasises — pounding — and you grasp the nimble conceit of the punchline. We eventually know what Isheeta is taking an off for, but only a curious reader of language and acting would probably get that cue. Also, only an actor who can easily travel between comedy and drama, dread and dreariness, could pull off something of the sort in a short film. Shome, who features in two contrasting but equally impressive roles this week — the other one being Lipika from The Night Manager — is crafting her own little streaming catalogue of whimsy and brilliance.
As Isheeta, Shome goes into territory that few actors have before. Sure we have seen actresses watch porn on screen before (Swara Bhasker in Veere Di Wedding and Richa Chadha from Masaan come to mind) but this is a whole different exercise that locates desire in the potentially treacherous territory of seeing and being seen. The gaze here is far more explicit than the actual act of having sex. Isheeta catches her maid Seema, played by the exquisite Amruta Subhash, having sex on her bed. Rather than confront her, however, Isheeta begins to derive pleasure from the act of spying on Seema. Sure men have ogled and stalked in our movies through history, but this is perhaps a first; where women seem to borrow that depravity, and validation through the other’s act of watching. It’s the kind of sexual politics whose depth would elude men had they been cast in similar roles. Women clearly are more adept at reading and interpreting sexual subtext.
While Subhash’s Seema becomes the subject, for large parts it’s Isheeta’s gaze that The Mirror has to define and work under. Insomuch that the pleasure never quite devolves into the voyeuristic act of pornography but remains in the territory of perversion. It’s like walking across fire, all things considered, yet Shome is near-perfect as the unassuming, lonely, and somewhat desperate Isheeta. To the film’s thorny moral core she imports the charm of an urban woman who pretends to have things under control, when she so obviously doesn’t.
It’s a fact that blows up in her face in bittersweet fashion when the two women confront each other. All that culture, that eloquence of language and money, is a front that papers over the blank canvas of her life. It’s where the act of watching, as a participative embrace, comes in. Few women in this country probably experience true, safe pleasure. Fewer still get to express it. It’s what makes this act of mutual undressing, as salacious as it also feels, secure.
In her role as Lipika, on the other hand, Shome is a pesky CBI officer who carries around a small handheld fan and delivers to dangerous men their comeuppances with consummate ease. There is an earthiness to this act, despite the presence of wit that cuts across genders and masculinities. While everyone else in the show is immaculately dressed, put together as if from the brochure of a luxury resort (also where much of the show takes place), Lipika is that aesthetic eyesore that rearranges the narrative’s priorities every time it starts to feel pretentious. There is frankly too much style and sexual oomph on show, that is thankfully countered by the endearing presence of a woman who sounds and behaves like she’s the smartest of them all. It’s a role that could have easily walloped a lesser actor, overawed by the presence of blissfully pretty gentry, but Shome practically holds the fort all on her own.
It’s incredible that Shome has been around for two decades and has only just begun to show up in stories as regularly as she has recently. Range is an over-abused term in this context, but Shome has exhibited work that places her as one of the most consistent actors working at the moment. Incredibly while she is being revered for playing an urban millennial in Isheeta, she has also not too long ago portrayed Seema’s side — as the maid who reluctantly falls for her boss in the brilliant Sir. Her stomach-churning turn in the latest season of Delhi Crime feels like no fluke either. Rarely has an artist dispatched so much variety without actually overhauling tonality or style. It’s the subtle things that transport her from one brilliant performance to another, without massively altering a lot. The kind of ease with acting’s many highs and lows that her onetime co-star Irrfan Khan stood for. And that is no small compliment.