‘I learnt to accept myself’: Tooth Pari star Tillotama Shome weighs on self-worth, art of slowing down and more

In our cover story, she opens up about the days she felt like a misfit in the industry and learning to feel comfortable in her own skin.
Tillotama Shome in Tooth Pari
Tillotama Shome in Tooth Pari

The mention of her name instantly conjures up a multitude of memorable titular characters that she has portrayed with critical acclaim. From her portrayal of the domestic help Alice in the iconic film Monsoon Wedding (2001) to her exceptional performance as a girl raised as a boy Kanwar in the movie Quissa, her depiction of the mean and snobbish Education Consultant in the film Hindi Medium (2016), and her recent portrayal of the intelligence agent Lipika in the series The Night Manager, actress Tillotama Shome has shattered the glass ceiling between mainstream and critically appreciated roles with her unparalleled performances.

This time, the Bengali beauty, known for defying conventional roles, embraces yet another out-of-the-box character of Meera, a courtesan vampire, in Netflix’s latest romance drama series Tooth Pari: When Love Bites. Set in the mystical moors of Bengal, the narrative of the series is shrouded in dark secrets about fabled creatures like witches and vampires. Tillotama, through her humanising portrayal of the nightmarish role, teaches the viewers the art of seduction, grace, and poise.

The role of Meera is as refreshing for the accomplished actress as it is for the audience, who have mostly seen her play intense, marginalised, and socially-battered characters. During our conversation with the multilingual star, she shares how she makes her roles “convincing” and why she considered herself an oddball in the industry for the longest time. The Sir (2018) actress, also opened up about her life-altering experiences during the pandemic which made her re-assess the idea of self-worth.

She has a newfound approach to taking life easy, learning patience through time-consuming hobbies, and living in the present moment. In her 40s, she is not interested in sounding too “old” but does place great importance on the valuable lessons she learnt in the company of elders — all this and more she reveals like an open book.


<strong>Tooth Pari poster</strong>
Tooth Pari poster

The role of Meera is quite different from the rest of your filmography. How do you feel playing it? 

When I got a call from the casting director that I had to play this really seductive vampire who is a courtesan, I asked them ‘You know you have called me, right?’ because I didn't find myself fit for the role. I was literally thinking that the makers were kind of pulling a prank. I kept asking, ‘Is it (the role) really written for me?’ What eventually worked for me was not just a temptation to play a unique character that I have not played before, but that the makers were audacious enough to take a risk with me. I thought that the industry has far better people with artistic flair to ace a courtesan. In fact, my dance teacher left me in my younger days, telling me that I am not Bengali enough since I wasn’t that good at dance, music, etc (laughs).

You play a nightmarish character like a vampire with elegance, integrity, and righteousness. What do you like about the role?

Meera is a vampire who has not crossed the upper world of humans and the lower world of these mystical characters for a while now. She has not sucked blood from a human for a long time because human tolerance for anything that is fishy is at a low and hence, not worth taking a risk, as you will see in the series. So she has now made peace with this life and spends her time with vampires, teaching them the art of seduction. Since she has not gone up in a while, there is no devilish vampire action which I liked a lot as an actor. That way, I am not playing the obvious.

My role has been humanised, much like other characters where they are playing more than just the clichéd part. When we stereotype characters to certain levels like good, bad, vulnerable, vicious… then an actor is also limited in the scope of performance. I love how Meera is unconventionally written. Another aspect that I like about Meera is how she’s shown as a courtesan who is a custodian of culture. She fosters poetry, writing, arts, dance, and carries culture in oral history and tradition. The show revives courtesans as a patron of arts and not someone who is looked down upon, like they are in popular discourse now. What really fascinated me about Meera was how she does not fit into the mold shaped by society for her. There is more to her which you’d see in the show. In our culture today, we want to put women in brackets — either as a professional or a homemaker, sexy, nerd, serious and all such categories. This oversimplifies them and hides the overarching complexity. Meera’s role refuses to follow any archetype.

<strong>Playing vampire courtesan Meera</strong>
Playing vampire courtesan Meera

Has today’s audience become more intelligent in accepting a wide range of roles?

I have to say that the number of characters that I have played in my career have shown different facets of human beings. That makes the character relatable to people and they like to watch it. I think the audience was always discerning. It was with the makers, actors and the fraternity who feared experimenting. Having said that, (I could be wrong as well), COVID-induced isolation and suffering, insinuated a change in the mindset of audiences. In the severe waves of the pandemic, we lost loved ones and faced the harsh reality. COVID erased all the superficial aspects on which we anchored our lives. That’s when people figured out what really matters to them, what they want to prioritise. In the entertainment domain, they start to embrace characters that reflect the complexity of life that they’re dealing with in reality. They want to see characters that make them feel less lonely and say ‘we’re in this together’. 

Most of your characters appear very righteous in conduct. Is it a conscious choice to be on the right side of the moral arc?

I did play a murderer in the series Delhi Crime. But yes, she was not just a psychotic killer but a woman who has been wronged by the system, society and circumstances. The character was shown with sensitivity. Honestly, I don’t want to play a woman who is just a psychotic killer with no understanding of what made her so. I also don’t want to show perfect women because they don’t exist! The character should also have layers that explain why she is who she is, whether she is morally upright or not. Any character without a sense of what makes them who they are is unconvincing, and you can’t empathise with them.

<strong>Posing in poise</strong>
Posing in poise

Despite having a praise-worthy body of work, you seem to stay away from promotions, awards or social gatherings. Is there a reason?

Mujhe toh lag raha hai maine bahut kiya hai (I think I have put in a lot of effort) (laughs). I am trying to do my best. I want to act in my 50s, 60s and 70s. So I have to stay in a headspace that puts me at ease. For instance, I can’t wear stilettos or an uncomfortable dress for a party because then I won’t be able to have fun. And if I am not enjoying the journey, I won’t be here for long. I think deep down, everyone wants to be comfortable. I love being at home, spending time with my family and doing things that nourish me apart from acting. I love to see things grow. I enjoy gardening and embroidery. They teach me a lot of patience. When I am out on set, I embrace the discomfort that comes when you are trying to empathise with the character you don’t relate to personally. That kind of discomfort is very fulfilling and lovely.

You mentioned COVID being life-altering. How has it impacted you on a personal front?

During COVID, life just became so intense and intertwined with constant anxiety. That time, I picked up things that slowed me down like gardening, embroidery and especially talking to older people. I felt their vulnerability closely in tough times of lockdown. I asked ‘Is this world a good place for older people?’ Just like our parents have done so much to raise us, I was wondering how we as a generation are taking care of them. Moreover, my mother’s battle with cancer during COVID and the kindness shown by even the strangers who helped her out changed my mindset towards life that I need to be more gracious for what I have. In fact, COVID changed the way I see life and made me accept myself. Most of my 30s were spent in deep self-questioning about my self-worth. I used to think that I am not getting work because I am not beautiful or I don’t socialise and party enough. That kept me in a state of constant comparison and restlessness. It became so exhausting to think of myself as a misfit in the film industry. But after COVID, I learnt to accept myself as I am. I became comfortable with the way I am. Now, I’ve become very conscious of what I “want” in life. I live in the moment, with the person I am.

<strong>Tillotama Shome</strong> <strong>as Meera</strong>
Tillotama Shome as Meera

…So being with elders, what has been your greatest learning from them?

I think there is a certain cultivation of patience. Somehow, when I am with the elders in my family, their stories inspire me a lot to not take things for granted. I learn to be at peace. For instance, an uncle of mine took a flight in the 1970s from India to America and he had to go through five countries to arrive at the destination. At each country’s stopover, he lived a new experience. At one point, he was short of money and a stranger helped him. Talking to them makes me realise what they achieved was with a lot of patience and gratitude.

Tooth Pari: When Love Bites is streaming on Netflix.
Mail: priyamvada @newindianexpress.com
Twiter: @RanaPriyamvada

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