Kannada director Pawan Kumar’s 2013 breakthrough movie Lucia was crowdfunded. Ten years later, Hombale Films, the banner behind the mega-hits K.G.F and Kantara, has produced Kumar’s Dhoomam, starring Fahadh Faasil.

The Malayalam-language thriller has something to do with smoking. Kumar’s most expensive film yet promises the mind-bending trickery for which the 40-year-old director is known. The cast includes Roshan Mathew and Aparna Balamurali. Dubbed in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, Dhoomam will be released in cinemas on June 23.

Kumar’s career is a study in patience. He crowdfunded Lucia after he failed to attract producers. He had a film, Dvitva, planned with Kannada star Puneeth Rajkumar, who died three weeks before production began.

Dhoomam itself was conceived 15 years ago. In an interview with Scroll, Kumar observed, “I believe if you write something, keep it with you, because you never know when it will fall into the right hands. You must be patient.”

Will Dhoomam help me quit smoking?
I am not asking people to quit exactly. I have taken a different approach: are people aware of what is being done to them? How did you get your first cigarette? Who put it in your hand? How was this planned? What are the agencies working behind the scenes to ensure that you smoke?

I wanted to make a film on tobacco because I am a non-smoker. And yet, I was subjected to a lot of passive smoking. It wasn’t my choice, right? I felt a deep anger, and I usually write about things that disturb me. Lucia was about identity, for example.

But I didn’t want to make a preachy film. If I try to teach you to quit, you will smoke more. My approach from day one in 2008, when I got the idea and called it Nicotine, was that you will watch the film and process it in your head for days. It will be a thriller, a cinematic experience.

Fahadh plays a man who wants all the good things in life. Where do our ambitions take us? What are the consequences of our actions? I cannot reveal anything more about the other characters.

Dhoomam (2023).

What was the 15-year journey of Nicotine to Dhoomam like?
Lucia was made on a shoestring budget under 50 lakhs. It was a hit, but not a massive one. After that, every actor and producer wanted to work with me. But this project [Dhoomam] didn’t attract producers or stars in any industry, not just Kannada. Everyone got cold feet, particularly bringing up Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking, which didn’t do well at the box office.

I even tried crowdfunding, explaining the anti-smoking theme online. If the crowdfunding had happened, we would have done it in Kannada. I could have done with new actors, but I wasn’t getting the budget, which I got this time, which is why the film now looks and feels a certain way.

I realised that Lucia got funds because I was an underdog, and crowdfunding was a novel concept at the time. The emotion was that, hey, he is just like us, so let’s back him. Let’s do it for Kannada cinema. But after Lucia, I was no more an underdog.

I was supposed to work with Hombale Films, who, in turn, were in touch with Fahadh Faasil. In 2018, after I was done with the U-Turn remake, I got a SMS late in the night which said, hello, I am Fahadh Faasil, an actor in the Malayalam film industry. He was a big fan of Lucia and he wanted to collaborate. We kept in touch over emails and phone calls, but Nicotine wasn’t something he had read yet.

Hombale later got into the picture. Then Fahadh and I reconnected. He liked the Nicotine idea, read the 160-page English-language draft, and got on board.

Today, when I see Dhoomam, I just know it was meant to be Fahadh and it was meant to be this way. I am amazed that what I thought was relevant in 2008 is still so in 2023. If a producer made this in 2008, I’d have made a shitty film. So many details have entered the script over the years. There are so many conflicts I can write better now.

Lucia (2013).

Your films have a concise beginning and ending, with thick plotting in the middle.
Sometimes, the end is pre-defined, like in Lucia. Sometimes, I find a better end through the writing process, like in U-Turn. Dhoomam’s thematic ending was always the same but the means and ways to reach there kept changing.

I don’t write outlines or beats for a script. I’m the protagonist – I start my journey here, what will I do next?

A bit like Christopher Nolan’s Following, where the writer protagonist follows people for inspiration.
I have watched that film so many times and studied its making. I do see it that way: if I meet this guy at the bus stop, where will the story take me? Overall, the dramatic structure comes to me from theatre, because I used to perform a lot on stage. I have to get the audience on my side in the first few minutes. You hook them, then you can play with them.

Most of your films deal with an identity crisis. The protagonist is misunderstood or distrusted or singled out for some unfortunate reason.
I quit my telecom engineering course after two years when I was 20. I was desperate to be an actor, and was active in theatre. All the plays I was picking up to adapt, act in or write strongly talked about identity, where you are not being allowed to be yourself.

Then, I got a chance to work with and work for Yograj Bhat, who makes mainstream romantic films. I focused on the voice of the character in the films I wrote.

What did you learn from Yograj Bhat?
Filmmaking is not just about how creatively you tell a story. That’s your personal voice. It’s mostly about how you execute your vision because you’re literally controlling 300 people on a set for months. And money is spent every minute, right?

You’ve got to be smart to handle so many egos and bring the best out of each actor or technician. You’ve to do all this in the most efficient manner because there’s a producer who’s counting every penny being spent. In the three years, I worked with Yograj Bhat, I learned this the most – how to get the best output from a limited budget or tough circumstances.

Most filmmakers fail at people management. They will have great thoughts, which they can communicate on a one-to-one basis, but not how to get a vast team to turn those thoughts into reality. Over time, I have also started accepting other people’s ideas of my vision because sometimes that’s better. Sometimes, my cinematographer will have a better take on a scene, and we’ll do that.

You can perhaps have success once, randomly, but to recreate it again and again, you need rules. Once the rules become part of your instinct, you can break them. And therein lies your independent voice.

Pawan Kumar.

What is your writing process like?
When I got married, I wrote Lifeu Ishtene, which is about a man who falls for various women. Because I was thinking that we all have so many partners, relationships, breakups, before marriage. What were those? Are they something to be proud of, or are they mistakes? I try to resolve my questions and doubts through making films.

When I got a bit popular, I didn’t like being recognised, people knowing my name or looking at me. That drove me to Lucia. U-Turn happened after I became a father. A lot of things I have written since then have a child element. I keep telling my wife and friends that I need to break the pattern.

Over the years, I have learned how to say more with less. When I look back on Lucia, I see how long I take to communicate a point in a scene. But in Dhoomam, one of my favourite moments is a developing chemistry between two characters. And I don’t even have to make them talk now.

My films have become less personal, starting with U-Turn. Now, I have different questions in my mind about the world around us, and I’m trying to address them through popular genre narratives.

What is it like directing Fahadh Faasil?
He makes you feel like you’re directing a first-time actor. He has no hang-ups. He is so raw and pure. I initially thought that because has such a vast body of work, he might try to do things in a certain way, judge me. But he wasn’t like that all. I would direct him and he would just jump in and perform. That’s why we could shoot the whole film in 46 days.

Fahadh is someone who doesn’t care about his previous film. He regards himself as just an actor. His approach is: how is a project challenging him as an actor? He doesn’t care if it will maintain his star value, because he never thought of himself as a star anyway. I couldn’t find an actor in Kannada with whom I could mount the project with the right budget.

With Fahadh, you can do literally anything instead of designing a project with him in mind as a star. Fahadh doesn’t have any prefix, like a galaxy star or something. It’s fascinating to know how this guy functions.

U-Turn (2016).