‘The Shameless’ stars Omara Shetty and Anasuya Sengupta on representing India at Cannes

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Set to grace the Un Certain Regard section of the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, Bulgarian director Konstantin Bojanov’s The Shameless has been making waves for its Indian cast of characters, particularly its two leading women. As they prepare to represent India at Cannes, both actors express a heady mix of excitement and humility.

Omara Shetty, a Thane native with roots stretching from Mangalore to Mumbai, initially dabbled as a journalist before serendipity steered her towards the performing arts. Anasuya Sengupta, on the other hand, embodies the literary pulse of Calcutta, where her artistic pursuits melded with a burgeoning passion for cinema.

Omara Shetty and Anasuya Sengupta in a scene from ‘The Shameless’

Omara Shetty and Anasuya Sengupta in a scene from ‘The Shameless’

For Omara, the transition to acting was a testament to resilience, spurred by health complications and a fortuitous encounter with an immersive new style of theatre. Meanwhile, Anasuya’s journey traced a path from Kolkata’s busy streets to the bustling heart of Mumbai and eventually to the shores of Goa, where her endeavours as a creative found fertile ground. Their artistic fervour transcends the confines of the screen, with Anasuya’s tryst with production design and parallel work as an illustrator shaping her approach to acting, and Omara’s foray into theatre influencing her performance style.

The film, primarily set in Kathmandu, follows Anasuya’s Renuka, who escapes from a brothel and takes shelter in a community of sex workers where she crosses paths with Omara’s Devika, a young girl condemned to a life of prostitution. Here, the two walk us through production and the prospects of a summer at Cannes.

Excerpts from an interview:

You both got calls from a relatively niche Bulgarian filmmaker to board this project. How daunting was it to take that leap of faith with Konstantin and did you ever imagine his vision to lead you to Cannes?

Omara: As an actor, I’ve had a different process toward every script I’ve come across. And it has been daunting every time, but in a good way. And I immensely believe in K’s (Konstantin) vision. The first time I was sent a script, that was it. I wanted to be Devika, whether at Cannes or not, it was all about Devika. I wanted to be part of this narrative.

Anasuya: I guess deep down, I obviously wanted great things to happen with it. But I don’t think I actively thought about it too much. I just loved the story. I read the character and I thought, “Oh my God, is someone asking me to play this woman?” Something really called me very, very strongly to it.”

Omara Shetty with director Konstantin Bojanov

Omara Shetty with director Konstantin Bojanov

How does it feel to have been at the centre of such a cosmopolitan effort, with cast and crew from all corners of the world?

Anasuya: I think it pushes people to work closer to communicate better, especially when your language of comfort is taken away from you. You can’t be lazy about your communication anymore. And that’s beautiful to see. It’s also always so much more charming and humbling to go to a smaller industry, to work together and to bring together. It’s so important to be graceful there and not to be brash. So you test yourself a little bit, you work better. By being a better professional, you make yourself a better human being.

Could you both tell us a little more about your characters and what drew you to these roles?

Anasuya: I would explain her as a character that is on the run, basically. It is unfortunate that there’s still more interesting male characters that are written. Of course, people are writing wonderful women characters, but it’s still not enough. So I loved reading that, as a woman with so much going on, and even as an actor, to get the opportunity to do so many things with a character. It’s not just being an actress in a palatable, pretty role. And that really excited me. But it felt like something I was anyway familiar with and it made me come closer to the character as well… feel just a little bit more badass and fearless. And shameless, basically.

Omara: She’s quite interesting and has this unspoken strength of sorts. She’s also quite resilient and full of heart. She’s got dreams. Innocent, but conniving. She’s very smart. And she hides and hides; she’s been hiding for so long. She keeps coming up with innovative ways to push the world around her, away from making her mould into what they want her to be, in her own way.

Was there an intimacy coordinator on set to help navigate your on-screen chemistry, or was the process more organic?

Omara: It was a mixture of both, actually. Our intimacy coordinator did a brilliant job of making us feel comfortable and heard and helped us find substance in a very organic way, while simultaneously monitoring it. Anasuya and I are very different people. But that works so well in a way because I genuinely believe that our chemistry was generated through the bond that we developed while shopping together.

Omara Shetty and Anasuya Sengupta in a scene from ‘The Shameless’

Omara Shetty and Anasuya Sengupta in a scene from ‘The Shameless’

Could you walk us through the Kathmandu shoot? Does the city itself play an important character in the story?

Anasuya: I’ve been once before as a set decorator on another film, and now it felt like coming full circle. Kathmandu is one of the most congested cities in the world so there is a sense of claustrophobia that one could feel. It’s gusty, it’s busy, it’s packed and there’s a charm in that. The claustrophobia does lend to the film because there is tension in the film. You want to know what’s happening with this person who’s on the run. So there is a sense of like a lot going on.

How do you interpret the film’s title?

Omara: One day, a production designer for the film told me, I still remember this, “You are ‘The Shameless.’ The one who doesn’t conform to society and wants to live her life on her own terms”. What is shame and where does it come from? It’s all just imposed. And it is her (Devika) becoming that, which is why she’s dubbed ‘The Shameless.’ So I see it as someone who’s decided to break free. And the world terms her shameless.

Anasuya: Shame as an emotion is a big block that’s too societally embedded, and it comes up in everyone’s life. And this idea of shame, when you’re ashamed, when you’re embarrassed, it’s the fear of that, right? Which doesn’t let you, like, cross over. Once you’ve crossed that, then there’s fearlessness on the other side. I think that’s very befitting for the film, for the character that I played.

How do you think the film is going to be received in India?

Omara: I’ve been thinking about it a lot, but I know that I have no control over it. I’ve learnt that I’ve got to do what I want to do, or else I won’t be able to live with it. The fact that I thought of what others would think, or so on and so forth. So to be honest, it doesn’t matter how the audience will perceive it. It’s a story that we all wanted to be a part of, and it’s out there for people to see, take it or leave it.

Director Konstantin Bojanov with Omara Shetty and Anasuya Sengupta behind the scenes for ‘The Shameless

Director Konstantin Bojanov with Omara Shetty and Anasuya Sengupta behind the scenes for ‘The Shameless

Lastly, how does it feel to be representing India at Cannes? Who or what are you looking forward to at the film festival?

Omara: It’s definitely an immense honour, being recognised for the work you put in. I do feel heard and seen, and I’ve never been here at the centre. I’m very, very excited to attend screenings of other films in the lineup and meet the other amazing Indian women who made it to Cannes this year, be it Sahana Goswami, Sandhya Suri or Payal Kapadia. And if I could, I’m also excited to catch The Apprentice.

Anasuya: I feel like there’s a sense of readiness. I feel so ready to take on that platform and be myself. I feel grateful but also very proud because I worked very hard. We all did… I once saw a De Niro interview where he says the most important thing to do when great things happen, is to just chill and relax. So I’m trying to keep it together, relax, and take it easy but I’m bursting on the inside.

The Shameless will premiere Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2024. The 77th annual Cannes Film Festival will take place from 14 to 25 May, 2024.

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