The dark yet lyrical world that director Anup Singh created in 'Qissa' attracted Tillotama Shome to come onboard for the critically acclaimed Punjabi film, set in the post-Partition era.
As someone who has built a career out of playing unique and memorable characters be it in 'Monsoon Wedding', 'Shanghai' or 'Children of War', Shome says she was fascinated by the story of a father (Umber Singh), played brilliantly by Irrfan, who raises his daughter as the son.
"Anup's affirmation of the tender while telling a rather brutal tale, drew me in. Kanwar (her character) was a creature I had not met before and I was drawn in, madly in love and terrified of heartbreak. The father's world was so dark that it invited a palpable attraction," Shome told PTI in an interview.
The actress has come in for a lot of praise for her delicate portrayal of a girl trying to be the best son to her father while privately struggling with a terrible identity crisis. The film, which released on February 20 in theatres, is also available online on NFDC's cinemasofIndia website.
Shome says whatever reservation she had were blown away by beautifully etched world that included Tisca Chopra's character of mother Meher or Kanwar's wife Neeli, played by Rasika Dugal.
The 'Monsoon Wedding' actress says her director did not want her to use the crutch of prosthetics or make-up to play the role of a man in the story.
"Anup warned me from trying hard to be manly, instead he encouraged me to just be the best son I could be to my father.
He did not want prosthetics to the rescue... So he guided me to explore the interior life of Kanwar, an entity that struggles to navigate between his public face and her private face," she says.
It was a challenge for the Kolkata-born actress to bring out the inner conflicts of the character.
"To move from the outside to the inside, from the familiar to the unfamiliar, was a real challenge. I was initially very hung up on the externals like learning Punjabi, neutralising my gait, which Kalaripayttu and swimming did help," says Shome.
The actress says she learnt a lot from Irrfan's portrayal of Umber.
"Irrfan is an incredibly enigmatic actor who will break the fatigue of a shoot with his sudden urge to fly kites or play a game of cricket. He is an extremely generous actor whose doors were always open for us. And I learnt a lot from just watching him negotiate through a space," she says.
In the film, the actress speaks fluent Punjabi for which she took training for seven months.
"Anup had found us a wonderful teacher Jaswinder Singh in Bombay who made us really fall in love with the language, its songs, its energy. He also helped us with our dialects as each character in the film had a different dialect. I am a Bengali and we have a genuine fear of gender used in languages. So I worked doubly hard," she says.
Known for playing character-driven roles, Shome will be next seen in 'Sold' by Jeffrey Brown, 'Ludo' by Qaushiq Mukherjee and an untitled film by Soumendra Padhi.
When asked why she is not seen more often in films, Shome says, "I ask myself that question very often, and have not found an answer that convinces me entirely.
"I can spend the rest of my life lamenting about it or just do what I have to do and stay inspired by people who did not have godfathers, rarely got to playing leading roles or a steady flow of work and yet today their voices are celebrated."