Horror hasn't grown, needs to be redefined: Aanand L Rai on Tumbadd

The filmmaker tells us he can't watch horror but is still backing the Friday release

By Priyanka Roy
  • Published 11.10.18, 12:30 AM
  • Updated 11.10.18, 12:17 AM
  • 5 mins read
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Director-producer Aanand L. Rai

Director-producer Aanand L. Rai — the man behind films like Tanu Weds Manu and Raanjhanaa — has put his weight behind Friday film Tumbadd, a blend of mythology and history, horror and fantasy.

Rai chatted with us about the horror genre in India and why Zero — his big December film starring Shah Rukh Khan as a dwarf, with Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma in the cast — is a 'giant leap' for him as a filmmaker.

Priyanka Roy:

You are backing a horror film like Tumbadd, but apparently you are petrified of horror films. 

Aanand L. Rai:

Yes! (Laughs) Even though I act like a strong person, I have suffered a lot while watching horror films. I went for one with my wife and in between, I ran out! I don’t dislike the genre, but kuch log darpok hotey hain aur main darpok hoon (laughs). But when I saw Tumbadd, I realised it’s a film that scares on many levels, but it’s not really ‘horror-horror’. It’s a layered film that speaks about so much else. 

Priyanka Roy:

It’s more about the horror of human behaviour, isn’t it?

Aanand L. Rai:

It sure is. It’s about the scary repercussions of greed and what avarice does to a person. Honestly, I feel this genre needed to be redefined much earlier… it’s been long overdue. I am glad it’s happening in such a great way and Tumbadd is definitely contributing to it. We’ve never treated horror with so much neatness and detailing. 

Priyanka Roy:

Or dignity… 

Aanand L. Rai:

Yes, dignity. This genre hasn’t really grown. Tumbadd has gone for many film festivals and in each, it’s got a great response. Which just goes to show that in India, we have many stories that can give us many dimensions when it comes to horror. It’s one of the most loved genres, if it’s done well.

With Tumbadd, my immediate and organic reaction was that I needed to back this film… it felt like a responsibility. All said and done, it’s a tough genre to crack. Tumbadd is a very Indian film with no prior references. It should do well with the Indian audience, even as I am proud to present it to the international audience.

What really hooked me about Tumbadd was that it is rich in atmospherics, but they are all part of the script. In horror, we do a lot of things externally to scare people. But in Tumbadd, the use of rain or the use of the time period is part of the story. It’s divided into three chapters and in chapter three, the film also assumes a political tinge because it shows India right after independence. And this is not a film that is political.

As a student of cinema, today I am a better director on the back of all the films I’ve made. The same holds true for the audience… if we make better cinema, then they, too, understand cinema better. If we don’t do that then the audience will get used to getting below average fare from us. I know we have to entertain the audience, but aise nahin hai ke entertainment hi sab kuch hai… ki log khush aaye, khush jaaye. Yes, we have to entertain, but we don’t really have to sell our film to the audience, we have to reach the audience. We have to broaden the horizon of storytelling, which Tumbadd does.  

Priyanka Roy:

And reaching the audience has got much easier now with alternative avenues to movie theatres opening up… 

Aanand L. Rai:

Some people say that the digital platforms are a threat to films. But I always feel their coming in heralds a need for us as filmmakers to work a little harder. We can’t afford to get complacent. We need to value the time and money of the viewer who buys a ticket and sits in the theatre for three hours to watch our story. We have to make that story worth it. It’s on us to create content that will make audiences not replace the big screen with the screen of their mobile phones.

There are some stories that can be told only for the big screen and for people to continue coming in, we need to imbue our stories emotionally and visually. We’ve had some smash-hit TV shows on these digital platforms, but films are also doing well… this year has been phenomenal for our films. You will definitely find Tumbadd on a digital platform in a few months, but the experience of watching it on the big screen is something else. But digital platforms are definitely pushing filmmakers to come up with better content in cinema. 

Priyanka Roy:

Your films have always been intimate productions with rooted storytelling. With Zero, you are making a leap with a superstar like Shah Rukh Khan frontlining the cast. Has the filmmaker in you changed?

Aanand L. Rai:

With Zero, there’s definitely a giant leap in my storytelling. But there’s been a small leap for me with every film. There was a jump from Tanu Weds Manu to Raanjhanaa and then a big leap to (Tanu Weds Manu) Returns. I graduated in terms of my craft and technique of storytelling, and I also started understanding my audience a little better. I was extra emotional while making Raanjhanaa; I was extra crafted while making Returns. And now when I am doing Zero, I have really gone ahead and done everything four-folds more — as a storyteller, as a director…. With this, my filmmaking has got more layered and more entertaining. At least I am trying to. Zero is like a PhD course for me. 

Priyanka Roy:

What made you sign Shah Rukh in the role of a dwarf?

Aanand L. Rai:

I needed an actor who would stand tall even if I take two feet of height away from him. I needed a very confident actor and a big star. Who else than Shah Rukh Khan, who is the most confident actor I’ve ever met? He loves taking challenges. The minute I told him about the film, I knew he would come on board. With him and me, it’s like a Vikram and Betaal thing… ki tuney bola aur main chala (smiles). I knew it was so challenging that he would accept it. 

Priyanka Roy:

And does it help the film that you and Shah Rukh are close friends off set too?

Aanand L. Rai:

For me, that’s something that’s very important. Filmmaking is a personal thing for me. Yes, it’s my profession, but the people I work with always become close to me. I am someone who can only function when I am in love. That’s my weakness. I’ve been fortunate till now that I have been able to forge friendships with those I work with. I am thankful to God that I got to work with Shah Rukh. Agar yeh do tarfa pyaar nahin hota mere aur Shah Rukh ke beech mein, toh Zero nahin banti (smiles). 

Priyanka Roy:

You are known for your women-centric films. Does Zero make a departure from your strength as a filmmaker?

Aanand L. Rai:

For me, it’s always been about the story. I have always been surrounded by strong female personalities and that reflects in my filmmaking. Even in Zero, I have two very strong women characters played by Katrina (Kaif) and Anushka (Sharma). I always find women have better stories to tell and that’s what I strive to show in my films.