Such a Long Journey

Such a Long Journey

Actor and producer Sohum Shah on the making of Tumbbad, which will open the Critics’ Week at Venice International Film Festival next month.

tumbbad sohum shah aanand l rai venice film festival
Sohum Shah

After seven years, Tumbbad is finally complete and has been selected as the opening film for Venice Film Festival’s Critics’ Week.

I had never dreamt that a film I produce will go to a prominent festival like Venice. I am from a small town in Rajasthan, where cricket and Bollywood are the only means of entertainment. I grew up on mainstream Bollywood, which was also my education as an actor. There is a fascination for cinema that’s a spectacle, larger-than-life, and that’s the intention with which I made Tumbbad. I knew that the Indian audience will like it, and I was proved correct when Aanand L Rai came on board to present the film. That it would also interest an international audience has come as a surprise. To me, the selection at Venice is a big deal but so is the collaboration with Aanand, because he will help the film reach a wider, Indian audience. I am so desi that I am excited that Tumbbad will have a release in every part of the country, including Sri Ganganagar, where I grew up.

You also play the protagonist in Tumbbad. Tell us about the film and your character.

The film doesn’t have a defined genre. It’s a mix of horror, fantasy and drama, set in the early 1900s. I am not at liberty to talk at length about the film. All I can say is that the tone is unusual and fantastical, like that of a folklore narrated by a grandmother.

tumbbad sohum shah aanand l rai venice film festival
A still from the film Tumbbad.

You started making the film under Recyclewala, a production house where you partnered with Anand Gandhi. The two of you have since had a fallout and he is no longer part of the project.

It’s not a fall out between Anand Gandhi and me. We took a lot of time — six years — to finish this film. Tumbbad was a small project when I started it but, later, I decided to scale it up and put in more work. The film kept evolving even through the editing where we further overhauled it structurally and tonally. Even in terms of VFX, I decided to make it more ambitious. Allowing a film of this scale to evolve like this takes time. Many people worked on the film over the years, some had to leave because they could not give it more time. I feel very lucky that the right artistes came in at the right point to contribute, and, when they left, someone equally talented took the baton and continued the process and made the film richer. It happened with costume designers, production designers and other departments. Anand, too, was one such talent. I am incredibly grateful to all the artistes for their time and zeal, no matter when they joined or when they left.

What were the struggles in making this film?

We tried very hard to bring on board a studio or co-producer. But, over time, I realised it’s not the kind of film that people will be convinced of just by watching a rough cut. We will have to finish the film before we take it to them. That was the biggest struggle because I had to stand by the film, give it all my time and financial resources till it was complete. I based it on a hunch and now my intuition is validated.

You were also a producer of Ship of Theseus (SoT), with which you made your acting debut. While working on Tumbbad, you had already established yourself as an actor and a producer. Did it make the process easier?

The journeys of the films are similar in a way. Both films are very unusual and all I had were my faith and gut to go by. Anand (Gandhi) had taken SoT to many people but no one backed it till the film was ready. It’s been the same story with Tumbbad. But, yes, having established myself in a way, doors did open to filmmakers like Aanand (L Rai). That said, Tumbbad also comes at a time when people are more receptive to cinema that doesn’t follow a formula. All kinds of films are being made today and there is an option of releasing films on platforms such as Netflix and Amazon.

Is the focus on producing films where you can also act?

I am an actor more than a producer. That said, there was a script recently I want to produce. It didn’t work out. Given that one has limited resources and time, one wants to utilise them in projects where there is a scope to perform. I am not an avid reader or traveller. Acting allows me to explore different worlds and, through that process, my own self. Acting is and will be the priority.