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Idea of human contact, stories as a collective is too strong to fade: Sir actor Vivek Gomber

The lead actor of Rohena Gera's Sir and producer of acclaimed Marathi film Court (2015) speaks about his work and making his first trip to Cannes.

Vivek Gomber and Tillotama Shome in Sir

Shriram Iyengar

Reviewing Rohena Gera's Sir for The Guardian newspaper, film critic Peter Bradshaw called it a 'thoughtful and heartfelt drama' about human relationships across Mumbai's class divide. Led by the performances of Vivek Gomber and Tillotama Shome, the film is in the running for the Camera d'Or after being selected for a screening at La Semaine or The Critics' Week at the 71st Cannes film festival.

The experience is particularly thrilling for Gomber, who plays the wealthy, depressed Ashwin in Gera's film. An actor who honed his skills on stage at Emerson College, Boston, Gomber has an easy voice and presence that defy convention. He was last seen in Chaitanya Tamhane's fantastic National Award-winning Marathi film Court (2015). The film also marked the production debut of Gomber's Zoo Entertainment Pvt Ltd. 

"It was just a by-product of being around," shrugged Gomber during our conversation. I am an actor, he emphasized. Not that he needed to. After working in television, theatre, and now films, Gomber has proved himself to be quite the performer.

Currently, the actor is busy trying to clear the way for writer Ere Gowda's debut film, Balekempa (The Bangle Seller). The film has already wowed audiences at the Rotterdam film festival 2018, winning the International Federation of Critics (FIPRESCI) award. After being premiered at the New York Indian Film Festival, it will be travelling to the United Kingdom for the East End Festival and to South Korea for the Jeonju film festival later this year. 

With Sir, Gomber is now making his debut at Cannes. On the eve of his first trip to the celebrated film festival, the actor spoke to Cinestaan.com about the challenges of working in Sir, being a producer, and acting in independent cinema. Excerpts from the interview:

What was the first reaction to the news of the selection?

I was completely shocked. I was very surprised for sure because I have not seen the film as yet. We shot it last year in April, and since then I have been trying to keep up with what is happening. Most of the post-edit has happened in France. So, Rohena (Gera) has been there. I literally didn't know what to expect.

I am surprised, happy for Tillotama, and Rohena. As someone whose work I have seen and appreciated, I am incredibly happy for Tillotama Shome. 

Tillotama Shome (R) in a still from Sir

How did the story come to you, and what appealed to you about the story?

Well, I am an actor and Rohena was looking for one. We met, she narrated the script, and I was curious to know how to explore this relationship. That was very exciting to me because class divide, in India, is very prevalent. If you have seen Court (2015), it is something we talk about there too. It is something you can't escape. We don't talk about it much, but it's there.

All these themes were attractive for the project. Also, working with Tillotama Shome was a huge plus for me. I wanted to collaborate with her and was excited, having known her work for a while now. It was a great opportunity, and Rohena thought I could do the part. 

Considering that you produced Court, and it travelled successfully abroad, did you have any tips for Rohena Gera?

No, no, no. I am a trained actor, my job is acting. This producer thing happened as a by-product of being around. It kind of happened very organically. I am still learning how to be a producer, and what kind of producer am I.

It will be 10 years I have known Chaitanya [Tamhane]. We did a play together once. We have also produced a film called Balekempa, which Ere Gowda has directed. Now, we are in [the] pre-production [stage] for Chaitanya's next. 

I am more than happy to share my opinion when someone asks, but when nobody does I am more than happy to sit back. It is nice to not have that kind of stress. At the same time, you also feel 'I wish I had known more about that'. It is like a double-edged sword. 

Gomber (L) alongside Geetanjali Kulkarni (R) in Court (2015)

Production is often underrated. It requires a lot more involvement than people think, isn't it?

Yes, it depends on what kind of producer you are talking about. In India, we have investment producers who put in the money you don't have access to. Tomorrow, if something doesn't work, you cannot hide. You have to let the text breathe. Understand what your intentions truly are.

So that way, it was great. Rohena [Gera] just wanted me to be on the set. I was, at that time, working on a play with Rehaan Engineer, with Kalki [Koechlin] and Sheeba [Chadha]. I looked physically different. So Rohena asked me if I was willing to change a bit, look a little different. From the beginning itself, I was given the challenge to look the part.

I had a fun time working on it. Seeing how they develop the scripts and taking on the challenges alongside a first-time director was fun. For her to get these accolades, is great.

As for your question, Rohena never really asked me for advice because I told her I was happy not to have those responsibilities. Also, you respond to where the film gets screened for the first time. I think the producers' job is to see what they get, and to move with the strategy. In independent cinema, you don't have the budget to pre-empt the release, and the buzz. 

Cannes is obviously such a big place. This is my first time as well. It's great. I'll get to soak in the amazing festival, and how intense it is that I keep hearing from everyone. 

Visibility certainly increases with a screening at a festival like Cannes. But does it really help in an age when audiences are moving away from theatres? Do independent filmmakers need to look at different screeening mediums?

Well, the way films are being made,... there is such a change. Many big digital players have come in and are producing their own [content]. I think they are trying to monetize their formula of learning and going, the rest of the world as well. The Indian industry is very strong, in comparison. Our regional loyalty is strong. 

But would people continue to watch films with that consistency? Would it have to turn into an event? Or would people consume whatever is close to them? These are all challenges. As independent filmmakers, these are interesting times because you have access. But at the cost of not having a theatrical. 

I think we are all negotiating this change. It is really hard to tell. There is no money in the market, is something we hear every year. Every year it gets a little harder for people to invest in something. Especially with independent cinema, you can't promise returns. But there must be some joy also. 

We have to keep up with advancing technology. One thing I have a lot of confidence in, be it films, performance art, galleries — this idea of human contact and gathering and receiving things as a collective is too strong to fade. In fact, if anything, it will become more expensive and unique. 

It is interesting that you mention theatre as your starting point. You are quite passionate about it. What led you to theatre?

I did my Bachelor of Fine Arts at Emerson College. It is like a conservatory for the last two years of college. So I went through Shakespeare, among others, on stage. I was very passionate about acting, and was fortunate that my parents were able to put up with my whims. I always wanted to act since I was 10.

Was it a culture shock, returning from Singapore to try and work in Indian films and television?

I never really worked in any other industry. Even though I grew up in Singapore since the age of 10, during holidays I would come here in the summers. Since I am a citizen of Singapore, I served for two years in the army, before returning to India. 

I moved here at the end of 2004-05. Since then, I spend about half the time here, and half in Singapore. Five to seven years ago, I became a producer by necessity. I am still exploring that question. 

You couldn't have picked a better film than Court to start with....

You can look at it in many ways. I only find it positive and encouraging. You can't always expect things to be a certain way. I am very clear about that. We were knocking doors for co-production too, but it didn't go through. So we got into self-production. You try to negotiate quite a few things, and along the way you learn a lot. 

You respond to the product because you have no money. If I had a budget for R&D and P&A, then these films could make even more money.

So, what are the other projects lined up?

Right now, we are working on an untitled film with Chaitanya Tamhane. The pre-production is happening since the beginning of the year and we plan to go on the floors by the end of the year. 

We have our production company, Zoo Entertainment Pvt Ltd. Court was our first, Balekempa is our second. Hopefully, Chaitanya's next will be the third. Just want to get as much done as we can.

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Cannes