Having in mind both India’s rich mythological heritage and the state of development of the country’s cinema, it is quite strange that the top-quality horror-fantasy works rarely come from the world’s second most populous country. However the trend can shift quickly since “Tumbbad” is one of the best and most efficient horror films seen in years. The critical response is good, the world premiere as the opening film of the last year’s edition of Venice Critics Week opened the possibilities for a long festival tour (Fantastic Fest, CPH Pix, Busan, Thessaloniki etc.) and the film was already released theatrically in India.
The opening quote by Mahatma Gandhi citing that the world is enough for people’s needs, but not for their greed, sets the topic rarely and usually superficially explored in genre cinema. It is followed by an obscure piece of mythology about Hastar, the firstborn son of the Goddess Earth, who was offered a choice between all the gold and all the food in the world. He opted for gold, but when he tried also to acquire the food, his siblings united against him. He was saved by his mother, but erased from canonical books, sentenced to spend the eternity locked in her womb (aka the Earth’s core) and not to be worshipped by people. That is the point where the mythology stops and the film fantasy ensues in the form of the triptych set in the titular village in the first half of the last century dealing with the myth, human greed and the (post-)colonial context.
First we meet the widow (Jyoti Malshe) who serves as a maid in a broken-down mansion ruled by an ailing local lord. As it usually goes, the mansion has its secrets and those in case here revolve around the family treasure which has a curse attached to it. At home, she has to take care of her two pre-teen sons and also for the boss’s hibernating grandmother who has to be fed in her sleep because she could wake up as a demon of sorts. However, the widow’s elder son Vinayak (played by Dhundiraj Prabhakar Yogalekar at this stage) shows the signs of greed and obsession with the family treasure, which could lead him in trouble.
Fifteen years later, Vinayak (Sohum Shah) is a newly-married young man living in the city of Pune who has not left his obsession behind and who takes regular trips to the mansion he inherited, always coming back with ancient gold coins, which draws the attention of his shady business partner Raghav (Deepak Damle) and the British colonial authorities. Another fourteen years on, the life of greed, opium and parties takes its toll on Vinayak and the recently established free Indian government is about to take over his mansion and Vinayak is training his young son to continue his work. The teenage boy, however, has a bold, dangerous idea to maximize the profit that could easily backfire.
“Tumbbad” is an all-around brave and risky film that could easily end up as a typical Bollywood mishmash of fantasy and melodrama, riddled with B-movie clichés and poor visual effects, but it is not the case here. It is a full-blown horror, masterfully designed, chillingly atmospheric (over the course of the film, the pouring rain does not cease even for a moment), but also quite brutal when needed without resorting to simple solutions like jump scares.
Oddly, for a film directed by the team of three (Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi and Adesh Prasad who, together with the TV writer Mitesh Shah, also adapted the works of Narayan Dharap into the script), “Tumbbad” is highly coherent. The storytelling economy is perfect in the sense that the viewers get the necessary information at precisely measured doses at just the right moment, which makes the whole plot hypnotically involving. Also, for a triptych, there is not even a shade of omnibus feeling. And the colonial sub-text is obvious, but left in the background without a pretence to take over the whole film.
The acting is solid throughout, but Sohum Shah, who previously worked with Gandhi on “The Ship of Theseus”, carries most of the weight as Vinayak, a greedy man of humble origins who desperately tries to buy his social status. He drops the ball occasionally, especially in the final third, employing the typical Bollywood overacting techniques instead. The rest of the ensemble playing the supporting characters is also decent, but their roles are usually based on their intriguing appearances and not on their acting abilities.
On the technical level, “Tumbbad” is nearly perfect, especially given the gap between modest budget and huge period-piece ambition of the filmmakers. The original score written by the video-game composer Jesper Kyd serves the film well, as is the rhythmic editing by Sanyukta Kaza. And speaking about the cinematography, handled by Pankaj Kumar must be done in superlatives since “Tumbbad” is one of the best-looking genre films we have seen in years.
For all its merits, “Tumbbad” has to be seen as soon as possible. It is definitely a milestone regarding Indian genre cinema and a future classic world-wide.