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In a city and an industry obsessed with speed, Vivek Gomber is happy to be a slow runner

By Ashley Tellis* 

When I first met Vivek Gomber, six years ago now, he was in his mid-thirties but as he loped toward me in a café in Bandra, near where he then lived, in his Bermudas and a tee, he might have been a US American just out of his teens. He was languidly fit and a far cry from the rotund, Uncle-like lawyer he played in Court which had at that point just been selected for the Oscars.
At almost 40 in Sir, recently released on Netflix, his body has the lived-in but well-maintained quality of a man in his early 30s, which is how old the protagonist he plays probably is. This moulding of his body to suit the role is not the least of his Method investments as an actor. His performance in the twee, arch and somewhat precious Sir, is stunningly measured. Given the less dramatic and actor-friendly role than that of the protagonist played by the redoubtable Tillotama Shome, Gomber brings to it the kind of understatement and delicacy that are lost unless you are paying close attention.
It is this understatement that marks Gomber’s demeanour and persona as a whole. We got to know him after Court had done exceedingly well on the festival circuit and learnt that he had supported director Chaitanya Tamhane with funds for a year to write in a room of his own, like Virginia Woolf’s aunt had done for her or like Frank Sargeson had done for Janet Frame, without which we might have never had those marvellous writers and this marvellous film-maker.
That collaboration has continued with The Disciple, Tamhane’s latest film, still doing the festival circuit( and much-anticipated here), as all small films are forced to do to for their makers and producers to survive, then getting a limited release here, if at all, in the multiplex circuit and then OTT platforms, still not reaching the kinds of audiences they should.
Most of Gomber’s films, both as producer and actor, are of this kind and it takes a certain kind of person to persist with this. “I don’t know if I fit in here,” he had said to me then, “I’m confused and trying to identify my own process here,” Luckily, for us he stayed on and continued to produce and act in amazing films. Despite the fact that he said “I am exhausted by this city,” he also said “My job is to be a sponge and soak it all in.”
Gomber did build amazing relationships based on trust. Tamhane and he never signed a contract for that initial arrangement, for example. He was he said “petrified of doing a film as a producer” but he persisted and that was based on a common love for working with texts, with the play of languages in a space like Bombay, with the desire to produce work as much out of one’s own frustrations (Gomber had recently lost his father; Tamhane was depressed) as to make meaningful art.
Theatre is Gomber’s first love. Indeed, The Disciple, as he reminds me now, is his third collaboration with Tamhane whom he first met in 2008/9 and did a play called Grey Elephants in Denmark, written and directed by Tamhane, with. Back then, Tamhane was “looking for an actor and we met in a coffee shop. For three months, we worked on a bare minimum text, built the kernel of the story.” Text is a crucial word for Gomber. “A strong text is important to me. As an actor, I’m malleable. There’s nothing in your hands as an actor. But I would like to be part of the project at the level of text.”
Gomber got his ‘basic toolbox,’ as he puts it at Emerson College in Boston where he studied theatre. “The homework has to be there, the five Stanlislavski questions. I write journals, all part of the homework. Actors have to keep practicing, exercising.” If you think this is a privileged existence - studying in the US, being able to produce films -- you may not be entirely right.
He had to fight with his parents for years to choose this as his career. They were, as he puts it, “hard-working people who built their lives from scratch.” His father worked in an international company in Singapore and his mother eventually retired as a High Court Justice in Rajasthan.
Six years ago, Gomber had told me he was learning patience. “Court taught me that if it takes six years to make a new film, I’m fine with that, that’s good.” He spoke of how they had prepped for months for the film and slowly built a casting team. Yet he was also full of ideas for the future of Indian cinema. “We need community centres in second-tier cities, residencies. We need to have discussions, talks. We need an Indie chain, involve all the states, new film-makers. We desperately need venues, more space. We should think 50-70 years ahead.”
Actors and producers like Gomber keep the worlds of quiet, sensitive, nuanced theatre and cinema alive. Their work is a testament to the perseverance of a certain sensibility
The bone-crushing reality of the Bombay and Indian film worlds still leave those as dreams and he may have become more cautious. He refuses to talk about Balekempa, the Kannada film he co-produced with Tamhane, which after doing very well initially on the international festival circuit, was axed because of the corrosive #MeToo cancel culture that engulfed its director Ere Gowda.
While almost no one here has seen it and it has not been released on any OTT platform, it is, by all accounts, an extraordinarily shot (Saumyananda Sahi) and nuanced film. A film is made by scores of people and it is sad that the delicate product is smashed by the jackboots of internet identity politics.
Gomber sustains himself with close, trust-based friendships. Speaking of his experience with The Disciple, he says: 
“There were a lot of expectations as well after the success of Court. However, we are very fortunate to have the relationship we have that we are able to steer clear from these pitfalls and concentrate and surrender to the script and the process it requires. Working with him is always a pleasure and an enriching experience. I am fortunate to have someone who I can collaborate with as an artist, someone whose sensibilities and politics resonate with mine. There is a lot going on in the world and this profession can be brutal, so to have someone that you can create with consistently is rare. I count my blessings for that. It helps me process the world around me.”
Gomber still does theatre. “I was working on Far Away (a Caryl Churchill play) directed by Rehaan Engineer, with Kalki Koechlin and Sheeba Chadha. We were performing in Bombay when the opportunity to audition for Sir came to me and he hopes to give back to theatre. I want to direct/produce a play. Dying for a text is a best death,” he says with that disarming smile and fain US American twang in his accent.
In a city and an industry obsessed with speed, Gomber is happy to be a slow runner. “If ten years from now, I am not in this business, it would not surprise me. I am willing to be unemployed and wait for the right scripts, the right directors, big or small, here or elsewhere,” he had said to me back then. 
Ashley Tellis
Six years down the line, he remains an underrated and underused actor, though he has been steadily doing work and we will hopefully see more of him. “Bombay Begums, directed by Alankrita Srivastav and Bornila Chaterjee will be on Netflix at some point in the first quarter of 2021. I am looking forward to what happens with that and what kind of a response it will get. I do have a couple of other projects in hand as well, that I start work on next month -- but I am not in a position to disclose that yet.”
Actors and producers like Gomber keep the worlds of quiet, sensitive, nuanced theatre and cinema alive. That the frequency of that kind of work is slow is a testament to the perseverance of a certain sensibility more than anything else.
---
*Independent researcher, writer and editor. Ashley Tellis’ research interests include Dalit autobiography, LGBT politics in South Asia and minority poetics and politics

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