The rain never stops in Rahi Anil Barve’s “Tumbbad”. It pelts the ground relentlessly, rendering everything else insignificant and giving the film an eerie atmosphere and a sense of foreboding. This gloom is what gives the film its best attribute – atmospherics. Barve’s film is redolent with a texture and detail that is rare in Indian films.
Set over a period from 1913 to newly independent India, in crumbling mansions and small villages, “Tumbbad” is richly produced – a period horror film that gets the look right. The story might not match the look, but protagonist Vinayak is worth your time.
We first meet Vinayak as a precocious 13-year-old who lives in Tumbbad, a village cursed by the gods because it is the only place that worships the demon god Hastar.
Hastar is a greedy deity who stole his own mother’s treasure, and was therefore ostracised and nearly destroyed by his divine brothers and sisters. Anyone who is touched by him is condemned to a life of unending agony. Vinayak’s great-great grandmother is one of them. She lives chained, part human, part zombie, in a dark corner of their cavernous house, and must be fed to keep her in her semi-comatose state and prevent the curse of Hastar from spreading.
A terrifying encounter between Vinayak and the old lady is the best scene in the film, but from here on the film abandons the thrills and scares. The horror in the next part of the film comes not from ghouls, but from the realisation of what human beings will do for greed. Having learned the secret of Hastar’s treasure, Vinayak, now a grown man, keeps going to back to Tumbbad from Pune, where he now lives.
He returns every time with gold coins that he sells to a local moneylender, but refuses to say where he got them from. As Vinayak becomes wealthier, the greed that took hold of him as a teenager becomes only stronger until he unwittingly passes it on to the next generation.
After the initial scares, Barve focuses more on the story, on Vinayak’s gradual descent into a moral quicksand from where he is unable to escape. The film uses allegories to convey its message – a well that Vinayak has to lower himself into to get the treasure, the bloodied monster who consumes everything in sight, and the decrepit mansion that houses him.
Barve draws on ancient folklore, the literature of Marathi writer Narayan Dharap and the changing face of India to create a world we haven’t seen too much of in Hindi films. There is great attention to detail, and the production design by Rakesh Yadav and Nitin Zihani Choudhary is on point. Once you know what the film is trying to say, the ending is almost a given, and Barve seems hell-bent on spelling out every theme rather than letting them speak for themselves.
That takes away from some of the richness of the material, but “Tumbbad” is still a winner in many ways. Sohum Shah is wonderful as Vinayak, the man who is dealing with demons both within and on the outside. But the true star here is Barve, who takes what could have been a regular horror film and elevates it to another level.
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