Vivek Gomber is 36, but in a bar he is capable of putting 21-year-olds to shame with his energy and drinking capacity. “I started everything really early,” he says, with a sheepish grin that reaches his eyes. “It happens when you go to a fancy expat school.”
Gomber speaks English with a hint of an American drawl, a remnant of his schooling from a posh Singapore school and four years at Emerson College, Boston, where he studied acting. He is good looking, well-built, and harbours a special fondness for expensive vodka. You might, therefore, be tempted to dismiss him as just another posh Bandra boy who acquires accents at airports as though they're available duty-free.
But if you’ve been reading about a multilingual courtroom drama called ‘Court’ recently, you will realise that Gomber is the National-Award-winning actor-producer of the film, which has become one of the most celebrated movies in the international film festival circuit over the past seven months. If you’ve read further, you already know that the film, written and directed by first-timer Chaitanya Tamhane, is a thoughtful and multi-layered look at the Indian judicial system through the absurd case against a folk-singer who is accused of abetting a man’s suicide through one of his songs.
Vivek Gomber (L) and Geetanjali Kulkarni (R) in a still from 'Court'
We’re at his sparsely-furnished Bandra apartment which overlooks a Mughlai restaurant called Sigdi. Post midnight, a police van usually parks itself opposite the restaurant, right under Gomber’s bedroom window. As famished policemen gobble down chicken rolls, their wireless radios crackle with intercepted messages that ring out in the quiet neighbourhood. “In some weird way, that sound helped me prepare for ‘Court’,” he says. "It helped me understand the aspect of life we were dealing with."
The film releases in about a week (on April 17) and he has had a long day, which has involved speaking to reporters and coordinating with the film’s distributors for Maharashtra. It has been nearly four years since this journey began. “You know the crazy part? The film wasn’t even supposed to exist till six months ago,” he says, puffing on a Marlboro. “We got so lucky.”
Lucky is an understatement. Nineteen awards and glowing reviews from leading publications such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Le Monde can hardly be credited to pure coincidence. And yet, the film exists today because of a gamble Gomber took in June 2011, when he told a then-24-year-old Tamhane that he would pay him Rs 15,000 a month to write a script after the latter told him about an idea he wanted to develop. “He was supposed to take 8 months but it ended up taking a year,” he says. “But I’d worked with him in a play — ‘Grey Elephants In Denmark’ — before, and I had full faith in his intelligence and maturity, so I wasn’t worried at all.”
When he first read Tamhane’s script, he knew he’d bet right. “It just made so much sense in the context of the world we live in,” he says. “It also seemed so universal for me. I could see it working not only in an Indian context, but pretty much anywhere since, to my mind, it was a strong comment on the socio-economic state of the world.”
The world of the film, in which he has also played the pivotal role of wealthy defence lawyer Vinay Vora, is not that different from the one he inhabits. As the only son to a now-deceased father who worked his way up to become the group CEO of Emaar Properties in Dubai and a mother who is a practicing High Court judge in Jaipur, Gomber grew up privileged. “Both my parents came from absolutely nothing to rise to the top of their professions,” he says. “They inspired me to be both hard-working and to take control of my destiny. All this that I’m doing now… it’s all for them.”
He spent his early childhood in Jaipur, from where he has memories of watching Amitabh Bachchan films and going out to a place called Gauri Café for late-night coffee. “There wasn’t much else to do there in the ‘80s,” he says. “I must have watched ‘Agneepath’ at least 300 times.”
The larger-than-life imagery stuck with him. After shifting to Singapore at age 11, despite doing well in academics and even enlisting in the Singapore army for two years, Gomber nurtured a desire to make acting his profession despite opposition from his parents. In 2004, after four years of intensive theatre training in Boston, he came to Mumbai to try and find work in theatre. His first acting job was in Quasar Thakore Padamsee’s ‘Salome’, alongside Ankur Vikal and Neeraj Kabi. Since then, he’s appeared in a number of plays, TV shows, and films. “There is some stuff out there that I’m pretty embarrassed about,” he admits. “But I had to do whatever I was getting.”
Transforming ‘Court’ from an idea in Tamhane’s head to a worldwide critics’ darling with a national release — along with distribution deals that have been cracked in the US, Canada, parts of Europe, and the Middle East — wouldn’t have been possible without Gomber’s unshakeable (some might even call it foolhardy) belief in his director’s vision. “When a text is that strong, you’ve got to go all the way,” he says, with a shrug.
The journey has been arduous, to say the least. In late 2012, 'Court' found no takers at the co-production market of Film Bazaar, organised by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), a government body that exists to promote regional and independent cinema. More than a year later, the NFDC rejected Tamhane’s script and declined to finance the film. While Tamhane had managed to procure 10,000 euros of funding from Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund, the rest of the money — Rs 3.5 crore and counting — had to come out of Gomber’s pocket.
Even on completion, a rough cut of the film was rejected outright by eight major film festivals between May and September 2014, including some of the best-known names in the world. Gomber says that this period was probably the toughest time the crew went through and they were “pretty heartbroken”.
“Venice was going to be our last shot, because if we got rejected there too, then we were going to take six months off and try applying to Rotterdam,” he said. “And we didn’t know how to handle sitting around doing nothing for six months after three years of insane work.” It didn’t help that several industry ‘well-wishers’, whom Gomber doesn’t want to name, told them that they were committing suicide by going to festivals without a well-connected backer or ‘godfather’.
(From left) Chaitanya Tamhane, Geetanjali Kulkarni, and Vivek Gomber at the closing ceremony of the 71st Venice International Film Festival
But on September 4, 2014, everything changed. ‘Court’ picked up two prestigious honours at the 71st Venice International Film Festival — the Luigi De Laurentiis (Lion Of The Future) for Tamhane and Best Film – Orizzonti (Horizons, a category for new, edgy films from various parts of the world). These were to be the first two of 18 more to come and the journey isn’t even over yet. “By September, we will have played at 45 film festivals,” he says, ”and I don’t even think that’s the final number.”
It’s easy to align Gomber’s efforts to a rich-kid-sitting-on-an-inheritance narrative, but he says the financial risk he has taken is palpable; after all, it’s not like he is a sought-after Bollywood star who can make all that money back merely by acting in a couple of films. It doesn’t also help that ‘Court’ — with its still frames, hyper-realism, and complete lack of background music — features a radically different kind of aesthetic from the kind moviegoers in India are used to.
Now, with days left to go to the film’s first-ever theatrical release, their efforts continue to stay true to the film’s original spirit. While they have help for its Maharashtra release, across the rest of India, ‘Court’ is being released independently by Zoo Entertainment Pvt Ltd, a company Gomber set up for the film, with the assistance of Long Live Cinema. So far, their marketing campaign has favoured visits to law colleges and interactions with the legal community over ‘viral’ publicity stunts and glitzy press events.
It’s the only way, insists India’s bravest producer.