Like classic horror films, Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad has demons – the ones who haunt and thrill, and have to be destroyed. There’s a chained ancient ghoul and a half man-half beast child of a deity seething in his mother’s womb. The film sets up its premise with a dense story about this mythical child Hastar, and why he is wrongly tamed. It isn’t exactly an attractive narrative device, and you feel you are being set up to solve a giant puzzle that interweaves mythology and reality. How will Hastar take revenge on the men and women who worship his mother, you wonder.
But by the end of its running time of about two hours, Tumbbad isn’t just a clever, meaning-making horror film. It is a parable in which the wrath of the tamed divine child seems weak against his unscrupulous, misogynistic, feudal opponent. The film subverts the genre astutely, without any gimmicks. The demons inside the protagonist Vinayak (Sohum Shah) have the insidious power to wreck generations. Brahmin patriarchy, oppression of women and greed are enmeshed in one fabric of evil – and hence startlingly current. The film harks back to Mahatma Gandhi’s warning: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad has been long in the making. It has four writers (Mitesh Shah, Rahi Anil Barve, Adesh Prasad and Anand Gandhi), a co-director (Adesh Prasad) and a creative director (Anand Gandhi). Producer-actor Sohum Shah is part of this enchantingly layered, and what must have been an intensely collaborative work.
We meet Vinayak as a young boy in 1918 in Tumbbad, a village in Maharashtra where it rains incessantly. He lives in an enormous, decrepit mansion with ponderous doors. Greed already consumes the young boy, the son of a widow (Jyoti Malshe) who goes about her business in this house with anger and fright. She is bald because Hindu widows were traditionally made to shave their heads to assume a state of sexlessness. She wants a gold coin from the mansion’s den of treasures locked deep within the ancient, stodgy structure, and then wants to escape. Vinayak wants all there is.
In the second chapter, we see Vinayak as a man with his own family making trips to unearth more gold. He is a predator and oppressor, and goes back to his ancestry for gold as well as for validation as a man. His son (Mohammad Samad) is set to follow the same path.
Through a story spanning around 30 years, in India 100 years ago to soon after 1947, the writers identify how the upper-class Indian man paved the way for feudalism and imperialism to thrive. The story ends with the beginning of capitalism, and hints at how the same social structure continues, but with new intermediaries in the power chain. But more than the portrait of a haunted India, Tumbbad is the personal exploration of one man’s demons and the inevitability of him living with them forever no matter what he achieves. Rigorously detailed as a period film, Tumbbad has resonance with class structures that exist today.
Barve has been an animation artist earlier, and the look of the film, down to every frame, has arduous attention to details. Each of the three chapters have a distinct look. Tumbbad is foggy, rainy and claustrophobic outside and terrifyingly red and sinewy in descent – a potent setting for the battles between Vinayak and Hastar. The cinematography by Pankaj Kumar, production design by Nitin Zihani Choudhary and Rakesh Yadav, and the visual effects team execute a visual experience hard to forget. It is a language without frills and lazy referencing.
Sohum Shah’s debut as an actor was with Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus (2013), which he also produced. Here too, he is the producer-actor, a double role that usually serves the purpose of unbridled showcasing of acting talent. Tummbad is, however, much bigger than Vinayak, and Shah has immersed into its world, both physically and in catching a nuanced beat to portray greed and toxicity. The film does not overtly moralise on anything, and Shah’s performance has the heft to present evil in a banal but terrifying way. He is an actor to look forward to.
Barve and his team of collaborators leave much to interpretation, but Tumbbad, derived from the works of Marathi pulp horror writer Narayan Dharap (he is known for his Stephen King adaptations in Marathi), is a thrilling cinematic experience just as a horror film. For film lovers, the genre-bending is gratifying. It has been a while since a horror film spoke so eloquently about something as primal as greed and remained true to its Indian (Marathi) setting.