“Bhoot nahi darate, insaan darate hai” (Ghosts don’t frighten us, humans do). Or so says Rahi Anil Barve, the director of Tumbbad, in an interview about the film. And by the time the film is over and the credits have started rolling, one would be more than inclined to agree. It revolves around the legend of Tumbbad, a village that was cursed by the gods when a temple was built for the fallen god Hastar. Over 20 years in the making (its first draft was written in 1997), it is a heady cocktail of adventure, mythology, greed, ambition with a healthy dose of the supernatural.
Conjuring up a world that beguiles you with a sinister history and mythos that’s entirely its own, Tumbbad is one truly spectacular achievement that highly deserves to be seen at the cinemas.
A brief exposition at the beginning introduces us to the mythical story of Hastar, the basis upon which the rest of the film is built, and immediately drags us into its world of mystery and chaos. We are given a glimpse into our protagonist Vinayak Rao’s (Sohum Shah of Talvar fame) childhood and the tragic circumstances that forced his family to leave their ancestral home for Pune. There were rumors of some treasure hidden within Tumbbad and dreams of such riches kept the young Vinayak on the lookout for any clue to locating it, but he was continually discouraged by his mother from poking his nose here and there. And some 15 years later Vinayak returns to his ancestral home to resume his search for the rumored treasure. His efforts pay off and we see him returning from his visits to Tumbbad every week with gold coins. But as he keeps getting richer, his spirit shrinks and he becomes increasingly greedier.
It is this curse of greed that forms the cornerstone of Tumbbad‘s narrative as we see it spreading like a plague among those who hear of the rumored treasure. Even Vinayak’s son (Mohammad Samad) goes on to suffer from the same affliction, passed on to him like some congenital disease, as he seeks out the riches himself even in the face of mortal danger. The way Tumbbad’s script balances the interplay between the forces of light and dark is rather interesting. Typically, a horror film will introduce an evil presence and pit the protagonists against it in a quest to escape the clutches of the demonic forces, usually presented as a race against time for survival. However, in Tumbbad, it is the other way round. Here the humans willingly encroach upon the territory of this ancient monster, thus proving that their own greed is the true enemy and the cause of their downfall. Rahi Anil Barve’s words, quoted at the beginning of this review, ring true once again as we witness the frightening transformation of humans to monsters (both literally and figuratively), trapped under the spell of avarice. And the consequences that follow can only be attributed to inevitable divine justice.
In a way, Tumbbad becomes a perilous tale of a treasure hunt gone wrong – one where the real obstacles aren’t monsters or demons but rather humans themselves, blinded by their own lust for wealth and power.
The filmmaking is impressive in the way it effortlessly combines visual storytelling with an attention to detail in crafting a world haunted by a dark legend, while carefully sidestepping clichés and the usual staleness that seems to accompany almost every film marketing itself as ‘thriller’ or ‘horror’. Tumbbad is solely neither. It is a period piece that may elude easy categorization thanks to the way it approaches its subject and delivers itself, dragging you in by the collar into its mysterious web of dark secrets and shocking revelations that keep you engrossed all the way through, while constantly managing to feel very unique within its genre. Sohum Shah effortlessly fuses into his character as the mustachioed Vinayak Rao, looking formidable and exuding confidence at every turn. In a film as ambitious in scope as Tumbbad, the environment and soundscape become just as important as the cast and crew themselves. And the score by noted video-game composer Jesper Kyd perfectly complements the haunting atmospherics that together set the mood for the film. The trees, overcast skies, rain, and mud-splattered roads and fields all come alive through DOP Pankaj Kumar’s frugal lensing of the vast Marathi moors and the bustling city of Pune.
There’s some intelligent use of tracking shots and close-ups that aid the film’s immersive style, while editor Sanyukta Kaza’s thoughtful and precise cuts preserve the essence of each scene while enhancing their emotional impact. The VFX is impressive for the most part, although it does start to resemble a video-game during certain sequences depicting supernatural elements. But that isn’t really much of a complaint in light of what it does achieve despite such a budget-constrained production. People expecting the classic horror-film treatment might be a tad disappointed to find that Tumbbad doesn’t really linger on or amp up climactic moments with a barrage of special effects and jump-scares. Barve’s directorial style, despite lacking some finesse, is more subtle and nuanced, in a way that the film’s true strengths lie in its build-up to these moments and its presentation of the aftermath. He doesn’t always make the most effective use of tension inherent in the script but, honestly, that sometimes feels more refreshing than milking every scene to the extreme that most mainstream thrillers tend to do.
Despite the first draft of Tumbbad being written as early as in 1997, filming began only in 2012 due to the unavailability of any producer willing to invest in the script. Thus writer-director Rahi Anil Barve spent the better part of his life in the pursuit of making Tumbbad and the commitment and love shows in every department. The script underwent multiple revisions over the years with co-director Adesh Prasad and creative director Anand Gandhi (who also made The Ship Of Theseus) joining Barve to bring it to life. In the process, they touch upon various aspects relevant to early 20th-century India like the colonial practices of the British, the Sati system and the role of women within society. The writers display enough maturity to let details of the overarching legends and mythos slowly ooze out throughout the film so that it demands a certain amount of intellectual investment on the part of the viewer. It never rushes from one moment to another but rather carefully explores the characters and the mythology; this extra attention to detail making the drama feel much more impactful and hinting at a world that extends far beyond the confines of this film itself.
Tumbbad begins with a quote by Mahatma Gandhi that says, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed” and the rest of the movie becomes an exercise in illustrating this simple truth. Some amazing camerawork and top-notch production values stand testament to the 6-year long struggle that the filmmakers went through in order to achieve their vision of this film packed with surprises. It is important to realize that the tale isn’t about Vinayak Rao or his son or any cursed God. It is rather about the legend of Tumbbad itself and the resulting consequences of one fundamental flaw in human psychology: greed. It strikes fear into our hearts not through monsters (even though they are present) but by unmasking the demons that hide within our own imperfect selves, sometimes powerful enough in driving us to commit unspeakable crimes that defy expectation. Go see it today at a good theatre near you.
When not watching films or TV series, Shaswata can usually be found either reviewing them or battling writer’s block. His obsession lies with framing and composition in cinema, something he explores by capturing the most memorable moments through screenshots and sharing them on social media.