Sohum Shah thinks of himself as an actor first and Bheema from Maharani is among his favourite roles so far. “When I heard the script, the idea for the first time, I went gaga over it. I knew this was the character to whom I wanted to give my all,” he told us. While establishing himself as an actor, Shah has also become a producer “by accident”. His banner Recyclewala Films has produced Ship of Theseus (2013) and Tumbbad (2018). However, his first love remains acting and he’s worked with directors like Meghna Gulzar in Talvar (2015) and Hansal Mehta in Simran (2017). In Maharani, streaming on SonyLIV, Shah plays a fictional chief minister (CM) of Bihar who hands over his post to his wife (played by Huma Qureshi). If that one-line description reminded you of Lalu Prasad Yadav, who ensured his wife Rabri Devi became CM when he was forced to resign following allegations of corruption, Shah will have you know his Bheema and Yadav have nothing to do with one another.
Here are edited excerpts from our interview with Shah, whose upcoming film is the silent comedy Uff, produced by Luv Ranjan.
Your character, Bheema, in Maharani is loosely based on Lalu Prasad Yadav, correct?
I don’t think so. It’s not based on Lalu Prasad Yadav, for sure. It’s a story about a political figure.
What was your process for playing Bheema?
I’m not a trained actor, I haven’t been to FTII [Film and Television Institute of India] or NSD [National School of Drama]. Whatever I know, I’ve learnt through work. I’m hungry for work and want to play all kinds of characters.
As an actor, you have to crack your character’s psychology and find out who they are, and Bheema is a very complex character, especially in the second season. It took me time to understand him. He has an aura — he’s a politician in his 40s. I had to gain a lot of weight for the role, which is easy. It’s losing weight that proves to be a task. So that’s going to be a process. I’d kept a beard for around six months that needed to be maintained.
There were quite a few challenges, but I had complete trust in the project. When I heard the script, the idea for the first time, I went gaga over it. I knew this was the character to whom I wanted to give my all.
[SPOILER ALERT] Bheema dies in the second season. Do you think there is more he could have added to the story?
I think it’s the writer’s decision. Every character has a destiny. What the writer deems fit, for instance, if they think the character needs to die, then that’s the plan and it’s right. That’s the only way the story will progress. New characters will be introduced and the story will change its shape — only then will Rani (Huma Qureshi) be able to take her revenge. I think it was important, and it’s a good decision.
Do you prefer acting or producing?
Definitely acting. I became a producer by accident. Nobody was making , so I decided to make it myself. Tumbbad had been in the talks for five to six years. I found the script extremely interesting and thought that it should be made. But I’m here to act, that’s what I love.
Which has been your favourite role to play so far?
Vinayak from Tumbbad, for sure! Actually, Bheema Bharti, as well. I can’t compare the two, they are both very close to my heart. Vinayak is from the fantasy world. We have seen men like Bheema Bharti around us. We have seen politicians like him. So it was easier to relate to him.
Your film Ship of Theseus has been called . What did you think of that?
I think Kiran Rao contributed the most to that effect. Had she not come on board, perhaps the film would have never reached its audience. It’s very difficult to make a film like this and have it reach the masses. We struggled a lot. Luckily, Kiran watched the film at a screening and she really liked it. She collaborated with UTV to release the film. So, thanks a lot to Kiran Rao.
As a producer, do you prefer telling stories that are not seen in mainstream Indian cinema?
Yes, definitely. Tumbbad is a simple folklore and a very accessible story. As far as Ship of Theseus is concerned, I appreciated that it dared to question things, especially the story about the stockbroker, in which I acted. Anand Gandhi has written the film. He really liked my audition for Ship of Theseus and it was confirmed that I would act in his film. But with a title like Ship of Theseus, the use of multiple languages in the film and the lack of an item song, it was difficult to find a producer. Times were different then. But then again, not much has changed even today. As a producer, it’s still very tough to make the films that you want to, despite the rise of OTT [over the top] platforms.
While making Ship of Theseus, it was decided that instead of making it an anthology of four stories, it would have only three. Was that a difficult decision?
Let me tell you a story. The most expensive scene we shot for Tumbbad was set in 1947, on the day we got freedom from the British. There were 2,000 to 3,000 junior artists present at the massive set. Later, when the film was on the edit table, the co-director of the film told me that he wasn’t keeping the scene in the film. I said, “What?” As a producer, my concern was that this was the most expensive part of the film. And as an actor too, this was an important scene for me as it was emotional and exposed the audience to a more vulnerable side of Vinayak, my character.
As a producer, you have to go with what the director and editor are saying. If you have to cut it, then you have to cut it. The same was the case with Ship of Theseus. Who would have watched a three-and-a-half-hour film? So we dropped the fourth story. It was a tough decision but we knew it would be better for the film.
Can you tell me anything about your upcoming series, Dahaad?
It’s an Amazon Prime Video show and should be out this year. It has been directed by Reema Kagti and stars Sonakshi Sinha, Vijay Varma, and Gulshan Devaiah. It is a cop story and has been shot in Rajasthan.
In the future, what kind of stories would you like to tell?
Tumbbad 2, Tumbbad 2, Tumbbad 2! But I’m really excited about my comedy film, I’ve never done comedy before. My image is that of a serious, intense actor. And because I wanted to do comedy, I’m very excited about Uff.