Sohum Shah's journey: From selling edible oil to coaching with Nawazuddin Siddiqui
A booming real estate business back in Rajasthan notwithstanding, Tumbbad's lead actor Sohum Shah and producer talks of what compels him to push the envelope in a creative and volatile field
There's an incident from the making of the recently-released fantasy-horror film Tumbbad that director Rahi Anil Barve recounts with part amusement, part reverence. Since rain is an important trope in the movie - shot in nine different locations across rural Maharashtra - Barve had insisted on shooting certain scenes during the monsoon, when the sky was overcast. "But, the region was hit by drought, so rain was often playing truant," he says, over a telephonic interview.
"For days, our set of 200-odd people would wait on top of a cliff, where we had constructed a hill house [for the film], wondering when it would pour. Had it been any other producer, he'd have said, 'F**k these clouds, and let's get on with the shoot. You're wasting my time and money'. But, Sohum [Shah] would sit with us, and watch for those rain clouds."
Sohum Shah. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
When we meet Shah, Tumbbad's producer and greedy protagonist Vinayak Rao, we realise that patience is second nature for him. Dressed in distressed jeans and a black shirt over a white tee, Shah doesn't protest when we ask him to move between sofas and rooms, in an attempt for a decent shot at his Versova office. Instead, like a true producer, we overhear him telling the mid-day photographer why he should be watching Tumbbad on the big screen.
For Shah, 37, the last few weeks have been surreal. There's no other word to describe what the critical success of his new production, which has been six years in the making, means to him. Despite essaying central characters in Ship of Theseus (2012) as stock-broker Navin, Talvar (2015) where he played mean ACP Vedant Mishra, and the boy-next-door in Simran (2107), Shah's body of work has gone fairly unnoticed. Tumbbad lifts the veil on another brilliant actor in an industry that is otherwise, star-struck. Shah admits, however, he too, is guilty of venerating icons, and Shah Rukh Khan in particular.
When Tumbadd's director Rahi Anil Barve struggled to get a producer onboard, Sohum Shah, who was meant to play lead, agreed to produce the film
Love for Bollywood
Having grown up in the small Rajasthani town of Sri Ganganagar, 400 km from Jaipur and with a population of 2.5 lakh, Shah, like most kids from the 90s, remembers repeatedly watching Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH). "The kind of positivity and energy that Shah Rukh brought to the screen, it could fill your life with a lot of happiness," he says. "I remember a doctor friend, who felt that she was going crazy while studying medicine. She told me that KKHH helped her snap out of depression. He has contributed a lot to our culture. To me, he's not just an actor, he is way above. I wanted to be exactly like him."
It's these starry dreams that vacuously occupied most of his teenage years. But hailing from a family, where money was hard to come by - his father was a commodity broker - he decided to assist him in his business, at the age of 14. "As much as I wanted to become an actor, I also wanted to contribute to the family, and improve our financial condition," he says. Two years later, he took over the business. "I went on to dabble in different kinds of commodity trade, including edible oil. Bahut papad bele."
Finally, Shah found success in real estate, and within eight years, he managed to establish himself as a businessman to reckon with, at least in Sri Ganganagar. "When I knew I could run my business on auto-pilot, I decided it was time to make the shift to Mumbai," he says. This was in 2008. Shah hasn't looked back.
Making movies happen
Before Shah moved lock, stock and barrel he had visited Mumbai briefly, somewhere in 2006. "At the time, I thought, I'd make a music video featuring myself and people would take notice of me. That way, I'd get some work. I was so naïve," he laughs. "On a common friend's suggestion, I enrolled in an acting school, but couldn't commit to it, because a lot of work was still stuck back home," he says.
He even befriended Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who hadn't yet tasted success with Kahaani and Gangs of Wasseypur, and took him to Sri Ganganagar for a month, where he trained with him for three hours daily, in between meeting work commitments. When he returned, Shah decided to give himself completely to the movies. "I came from a place, where I had achieved immense success. So, having to start again from scratch, was tough. But, I was not someone who'd live on the streets and survive on vada pav. Yes, Mumbai was a different landscape and initially, I did feel alienated, but I was crazy about the movies and determined to get a hang of it."
Shah first produced and acted in a gangster drama titled Baabarr (2009), which tanked at the box office. A year later, he met filmmaker Anand Gandhi, whom he credits for exposing him to good cinema. He went on to play Navin in the massive cast of Ship of Theseus, which Shah and Gandhi produced under the Recyclewala Films banner.
During the same time, Rahi, who wanted a non-star to play lead in Tumbbad, approached him with the film. "When I heard the script, I jumped. It felt like a grandmother's tale, which was very rooted and Indian," remembers Shah. But Rahi was struggling to get a producer on board. "After seven months of not hearing from me, Shah came back and said he'd produce the film himself," Rahi says.
Even as Tumbbad was in the making, Shah took on side roles in other films. He was last seen in Simran as Kangana Ranaut's love interest Sameer. "Sohum, if cast correctly, comes without baggage. He can easily slip into character and become the person, you imagined. He played the boy-next-door and convincingly," says Hansal Mehta, who directed the film.
That Tumbbad took so long to make, was also because Shah ensured that every aspect of the film, right from the storytelling to cinematography, the writing and the demon god, Hastar, that was first shot in prosthetics before they opted for VFX, was perfected to the last detail. On screen, Shah stands out as the gluttonous Vinayak, and is able to compellingly portray the character's grey shades. That he had to maintain his physique through the many years of shooting the film - he used traditional wooden weights to get the chiselled look - and changed over four coaches to learn Marathi, is reflection of his dedication. "Sohum believed in Tumbbad when nobody else did. It was my baby, but he nurtured it like his own," says Rahi.
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