While India has no shortage of films, it has not had a breakout in horror in the Western world. Tumbbad, a debut from writer-director Rahi Anil Barve and co-directed by Anand Gandhi, looks to make its mark on the genre. However, it seems to lean more towards a supernatural, spiritual drama rather than a horror film.
The story is set up around the God Hastar, cursed for his greed, entombed in his mother’s womb and banned from being worshipped. Lo and behold, a family in Tumbbad builds a shrine for him and in return they are rewarded by a mysterious treasure which is kept a family secret. Young Vinayak (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar as a child, Sohum Shah as an adult), the son of the patriarch and his mistress, is defined from a young age by his insatiable greed. Despite his mother demanding, he never returns to the town. He turns up 15 years later, ready to find this treasure he feels he is owed. He is guided by his great grandmother, who is less cookies-and-milk and more cursed for eternity, stuck in their old house unable to die. So far so good.
We aren’t privy to this at first, but Vinayak finds a deep well his ancestors have raided, leading to the womb of the Goddess and a starving, demonic Hastar decorated with a crown and a loincloth full of gold coins. Vinayak, through trial and error, manages to steal coins by throwing a dough-doll to feed him and then pickpocketing the coins. Vinayak gets richer: he buys a better house with his wife and newborn, upgrades his vehicles, engages in good old hedonism. However, it’s hardly a stable business model. Eventually, his son is educated in how to steal from the demonic flesh womb.
Vinayak’s journey after he cashes in his coins is slow and tiring to watch, providing no new content nor any more depth to his character, which is solely defined by greed. When his son is introduced, there is perhaps an opportunity to shed light on a softer side of him as he is primarily shown to be a cruel husband and a cold, suspicious man. But no, he continues his trend of whoring and beating his son who has inherited his hunger for riches, although his desperate attempts to emulate and impress his father provides him with a bit more depth. His wife (Anita Date) is disregarded by her husband constantly and at first it seems to be a commentary on gender relations in India, but it was far too touch and go to tell.
While the idea of a horror film set in the British Raj is interesting, the period is nothing more than a backdrop in this story. The era leads to some great production design though, contrasting the modernising city of Puna and the old stone mansion in Tumbbad - a beautiful building reminiscent of a crumbling version of the Shaniwarwada - which highlights the rapidly changing landscape of the time. The score consists of distinctive thumping drums that elevates the scenery around it, melding into an undeniable and unique Indian presence.
There is something horrifying about the corruption of a person through greed; the idea that one would go through extremes to grasp something that is always a breadth away. This story toys with this premise, however the protagonist does not seem to make a gradual metamorphosis to extremes, he starts off as a callous boy who turns into a taller, moustache’d callous man. As a result, there was nothing too chilling about seeing a one-dimensional figure get what is coming to him. Props to the CGI team that made Hastar though, who looks gnarly and arguably the most memorable feature of the film.
- Xiao Tang