caught up with Tumbbad’s cinematographer Pankaj Kumar on his 43rd birthday. The Film and Television Institute of India graduate had been out on shoots for television commercials when early reviews of Rahi Anil Barve’s period horror film started pouring in, and he has only just been catching up with the praise being lavished on the Sohum Shah-starrer. Nearly every review has mentioned Kumar’s magnificent cinematography and the ability of the images to convey the film’s themes of greed, blinkered ambition and corruption. “Tumbbad has been the greatest birthday gift for me,” Kumar said.

Tumbbad has been in the making for over a decade, and was finally released on October 12. While waiting for Tumbbad to be completed, Kumar rolled out five features, each one as visually striking as the next: Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus (2012), Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014) and Rangoon (2017), Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar (2015) and Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy (2017). Kumar’s upcoming credits include Prakash Kovelamudi’s Mental Hai Kya.

Originally from Bihar, Kumar lived in several cities because his father, an Indian Air Force employee, had a transferable position. Kumar graduated in science and has an MA in Theatre Arts. An interest in photography led to a cinematography degree from FTII in 2004. That year, he moved to Mumbai, where he met Rahi Anil Barve and then Ship of Theseus director Anand Gandhi.

Tumbbad follows Vinayak (Sohum Shah), who discovers a means of extracting gold from the womb of an ancient goddess. The womb is protected by her son, Hastar, and Vinayak finds a way to tame Hastar that he passes on to his son (Mohammed Samad). Daylight is barely visible in Tumbbad; numerous sequences are set in pouring rain; the womb is the colour of angry blood. Pankaj Kumar tells us how it all fell into place.

‘I fell in love with the story’

I got involved with Tumbbad from the beginning. I had shot Rahi Anil Barve’s short film Manjha in 2006. While editing that film, Rahi told me a story that was very intriguing. I fell in love with the story, which turned out to be Tumbbad.

We spoke a lot about the look of the film. Rahi made a huge storybook, and we knew that we had to make a dark, intriguing and graphic film.

Tumbbad (2018). Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.

The film saw a lot of ups and downs. It took a long time to get the finances. The boost came after Ship of Theseus in 2012. Sohum got more confidence about putting money into a film that wasn’t an obvious moneyspinner.

The shooting process was long, strong and intense, and the film was difficult to shoot. The look was very clear from my discussions with Rahi. The film had to be moody and gloomy. There was to be no sunlight. Tumbbad village had to look timeless, without a clear demarcation between day and night.

Tumbbad (2018). Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.

I shot Tumbbad on the digital Red camera format. I wanted the film to be shot only in the monsoon. There had to be constant rain, a feeling of wetness at all times. We wanted the audience to feel drenched when they came out of the theatres.

Usually, you stay out of the rain and shoot with long lenses. The camera stays in the same place, and it’s the actors who get wet. For Tumbbad, we would get wet every day of the shoot from the first shot itself. I didn’t fall ill, thankfully.

Although we shot during the monsoon to get the light, we didn’t get much actual rain that year because of a shortfall. That was okay – all I wanted was a cloudy day and no sunlight. Sometimes, we had to wait for hours just to get cloud cover. My entire team would be constantly looking at the sky, while the rest of the unit would be on standby.

We used water tanks and artificial rain in the scenes. We had large landscapes, and the camera was moving. Coordinating the water tanks along with the generators during moving shots was a big task.

Tumbbad (2018). Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.

The film was shot in locations in Maharashtra, including Saswad and villages in Satara. The rest was shot on sets in Mumbai, including the womb sequence. We did extensive recces throughout Maharashtra – the maximum I have done for any film. The recee itself extended to a couple of years.

The challenge was to find large landscapes without modern infringements, without towers and structures. We didn’t have the luxury of using visual effects to erase modern elements. Besides, we didn’t want to rely on VFX. Everything had to look live.

Tumbbad (2018). Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.

There are four colour schemes: blue and cold grey, splashed with striking red and gold. You see the colour scheme in the costumes and the set design, and you see it in the light source too. We used lantern and lamp light in all our scenes. We avoided modern lighting, since Tumbbad is a period film. Our lighting set-up comprised about 50 lanterns and lamps. Some scenes were lit with just a single lamp.

The beauty of using lamp light is the way it moves across people’s faces and throws strong shadows. It gives an eerie feeling, especially in the womb-like structure.

Tumbbad (2018). Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.

The womb structure took 15 to 20 days to shoot. We didn’t use any green screens – I detest chroma and avoid it whenever possible. The big challenge was the prosthetics and make-up. Scenes with real actors were enhanced by visual effects. The make-up and prosthetics were very elaborate and very heavy. It would take six to seven hours to get the Hastar character ready. It was physically taxing. We would get an hour to shoot at best, since the actor would be exhausted.

The set was all red and dazzling and pulsating. It was spooky to be inside it, and you would be quite disoriented when you came outside.

Tumbbad (2018). Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.

The claustrophobic interiors had a profound effect on us. While I didn’t fall sick in the rain, I did fall ill while shooting inside Vinayak’s childhood home. The set was so claustrophobic that it was a nightmare to shoot. It smelt of paint all the time. Then we had all the dirt and flour around to give the frames texture.

The motif of the flour was there in the script itself. Visually, it gave me a nice element to play with. We used the moment of the child’s spooked-out face smeared with flour to our heart’s content.

Tumbbad (2018). Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.

Another important motif in the film is the eyes. This was Rahi’s thing. He is fascinated with the history of the Chitpavan Brahmins, many of who are light-eyed.

When you get really close to somebody who is staring at you, you can see something beyond the eyes, something spooky. Even the colour of the eyes of the characters was meticulously planned. Contact lenses were ordered according to the specs. Vinayak’s eyes, for instance, are grey in colour.

Tumbbad (2018). Courtesy Sohum Shah Films.

Maintaining consistency was a challenge since we spent so much time mulling over the film, debating, fighting like cats and dogs at times. The look of the film was set, and we had to be consistent in terms of the colour palette, the lighting and the character design.

I have lived with this film longer than I have lived with any other. We shot over 100-120 days. Even big-budget films don’t get made for that long.

We had at least four schedules in 2012 and 2015. The entire film was shot by Rahi and me in the first schedule. When we looked at the film, Rahi, Anand Gandhi [creative director and co-writer], Mitesh Shah [co-writer] and me felt that it could be better. We were creating a world that our audiences hadn’t seen before, and we felt we were halfway there.

Anand insisted that we get the film right. He pushed all of us towards a reshoot. A lot of rewriting was done. A few scenes were added, and the story got enhanced.

Tumbbad (2018).

Anand and Rahi worked on the second sked. We shot the extra portions, and re-shot about 30 per cent. The second sked was even tougher than the first. We had to wade in and do the same thing again. We had to rebuild the sets, and they were more expensive than before.

The womb structure was a new addition. In the original, it was just a dark chamber, all black and horrifying. The idea of Vinayak descending into the womb of the goddess was Anand and Mitesh’s.

I have lived with this film longer than I have lived with any other. In the course of making Tumbbad, I shot Haider, Talvar, Rangoon and Daddy. I was going from one zone to another, but this is what I enjoy. I would consider myself creatively dead if I were to repeat a look or a style.

Ship of Theseus (2014).

Every film demands a different look – how we light up scenes, how the camera moves, how we frame the actors and what space we give them to move around. Where do we want the audiences to be? Do we want them to be in the middle of the action or stay far and observe?

Take Talvar, for example. It could not be a spectacle, since that would have thrown off audiences. It had to be ultra-realistic, like a documentary. If we did too much artificial lighting, you would not be able to connect to the characters. The camera and lighting had to be observant.

Talvar had a lot of conversations. I don’t mind shooting conversations at all. If the conversation is interesting and engaging, the camera shouldn’t be doing anything else.

Talvar (2015).

In Ship of Theseus, we wanted to reach into the depths of the souls of the characters. We were floating from one story to another, being instinctive and alive to what the scenes needed.

For Rangoon, we wanted the audience to feel the spectacle, be mesmerised. The lighting and every frame had to be larger than life.

The look of Haider was predefined: autumn was to be followed by winter. The entire film was hand-held, without any dolly or Steadicam or tripod. In the second half, there was a lot of action that involved me running in the snow with the camera at full speed. It was very exciting.

We shot in Pahalgam, where the snow was really heavy that year. We sometimes had to stop our vehicles and walk a couple of kilometres to the location.

So Jao, Haider (2014).

The beauty of snow is that it gives a place a surreal, graphic beauty. Snow also covers all your dirty secrets. Kashmir is most beautiful when covered with snow – it truly looks like paradise.

(As told to Nandini Ramnath.)