Tumbbad has been emerging into view since 2012. Like its lead character, who descends into the ground ever so often to dig deep for gold, Rahi Anil Barve’s horror-laced debut feature has endured its fair share of labours. The film has taken six years to get shot, completed and readied for release. It has undergone script changes and lost a producer and gained another. Tumbbad will finally out on October 12 after a premiere at the Venice International Film Festival.

For Sohum Shah, who made his acting debut in Ashu Trikha’s Baabarr (2009), had his breakthrough with Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus (2012) and has produced and played the lead role in Tumbbad, the film’s emergence can only be good news. “We have been in the zone since 2012, and we are relieved that it is finally coming out,” he said. “The conversation started before Ship of Theseus. Rahi had approached a lot of people with this film. He came to us with a storyboard, and he had already done a reccee. I felt that this was a very Indian film, with lots of drama and larger-than-life characters. We have so many such stories, from Amar Chitra Katha, Vikram Betaal and Singhasan Battisi. I don’t know why we don’t make such films.”

A period fantasy horror drama that begins in 1918, Tumbbad features a demon named Hastar who lives in the titular village and guards a treasure that Sohum Shah’s Vinayak regularly dips into. The morality tale of greed and debauchery is set in the Chitpavan Brahmin community, and shuttles between Tumbbad village and Pune. The richly atmospheric film, which has been shot by Pankaj Kumar, “evolved over time”, Shah explained. “We shot the original script, but we felt that it could be tweaked some more,” he said. “More people worked on the film. I put in more resources. As an actor and a producer, this was a one-time opportunity. It was difficult to get such a script on a regular basis. We were just a bunch of boys, we didn’t have enough experience.”

By 2015, most of the film had been shot, but the visual effects took three more years. The rough cut was 200 minutes long, and had to be slashed to 100-odd minutes. “We didn’t have references for the film, and we kept working on it,” Shah said. “I wasn’t in a hurry. I am not bragging, but it could not have been made in any other way. Of course it is good if it had been released earlier.”

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Tumbbad (2018).

Tumbbad was originally meant to have been produced by Recyclewala Films, the short-lived company that was behind Anand Gandhi’s acclaimed debut Ship of Theseus. Shah and Gandhi were partners in the company, but they later parted ways. The rights for Tumbbad were eventually procured by Shah, and Colour Yellow Productions stepped in along with Eros International to distribute Tumbbad.

“It’s not that there is a broken partnership – it’s just that we wanted to pursue different dreams,” Shah said about his split from Gandhi. “I don’t have any rancour. I have learnt a lot from Anand – he helped me understand the Bombay landscape, for instance. Tumbbad could not have been made without him.” While Gandhi is one of the film’s writers, the executive producer and creative director, Adesh Prasad has a credit as co-director.

Sohum Shah was born in a town near Jaipur. His acting career has been scanty, with roles in Talvaar (2015) and Simran (2017). He says he lost out on many roles because of having to stay on Tumbbad.

“I had to maintain the physique,” he said. “In my family, nobody has been to a gym. I am a Marwari, and we take pride in not lifting weights. I got my education from Bollywood films, and it might sound childish, but I learnt this much from Aamir Khan – whatever you do, you do it properly.”

Apart from bulking up his body, Shah’s role involved a lot of rope climbing. “The climbing bit was fascinating – I put up a rope back home and would practise,” he said. “The bigger challenge, however, wasn’t maintaining the physicality of the character but being consistent with the psychology and emotional graph of the character over six years.”

Sohum Shah in Tumbbad. Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.
Sohum Shah in Tumbbad. Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.

Several sequences are drenched in rain, posing yet another challenge for the actors. “I got fed up of the rain, and I was relieved to be doing indoor sequences,” Shah said. “As a producer, my forte is that I know how to invest in people, and Pankaj Kumar sweated a lot for the film. It was like a dream project for him.”