Tumbbad, Rahi Anil Barve’s dark fantasy, set in early 20th Century interior Maharashtra, is about a fallen god, a cursed village and a doomed family, that centres on a moustachioed Salim-Javedesque anti-hero. It is also that rare, expensive, VFX-heavy film that doesn’t star a big-ticket name, is made by newcomers, that opened the non-competition section of International Critic’s Week at the Venice Film Festival and is releasing in theatres in India. The film has had a long and arduous journey. The germ of the idea came from a story Barve had heard from a friend in 1993 during a trip to the Nagzira forest at night that had scared the bejesus out of him. When Barve revisited the story later he realised it wasn’t so much the plot as it was the friend’s narration, and the atmosphere of the jungle, that had left such an impact on him. Barve took the basic premise of the story — by Marathi horror writer Narayan Dharap, one of which was about a scheming moneylender, and another of his works, about a girl who is left alone with her grandmother when the latter gets possessed — and turned it into a parable of greed spanning three generations of an upper caste Brahmin family, their eternal search for gold coins that is guarded by an ancient monster.
This is difficult to realise on film, especially in India, and what made it harder for Tumbbad is that it is strangely uncategorisable. It’s not a straightforward horror movie, although it echoes tropes and atmospherics of weird fiction (often a mix of science fiction and horror) that hark back to such old masters as HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe: the family with a horrible secret; the spare moorland, dotted with a solitary tree, the house on the hill as the primary setting; a gloriously decrepit fortress overgrown with wild vegetation… The script went through many studios and producers before it first went on floors in 2008 with Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the leading man, when it quickly got stalled. Anurag Kashyap, who was deeply involved with it at one point, made an exit from the project in 2009. It finally found a home when actor-producer Sohum Shah and Anand Gandhi, director of the unusual and hypnotic indie film Ship of Theseus, came on board. Shooting began with Shah as the lead. Even as Gandhi, credited as the Executive Producer and the Creative Director in the film, quit later, Shah doggedly soldiered on.
But the troubled production would continue, not just because of the effort, time and money required to get the special effects right (done by the Swedish company Filmgate Films) but also because of the kind of precise treatment, the location and photography the film demanded. Consider this: the premise of the film that it always rains in the village of Tumbbad demanded that majority of it could be only shot on overcast days, and the best results would come in the months of July and August. It was filmed over 3 years in the barren flatlands near Mahabaleshwar, and the Sardar Purandare Wada, zeroed in on after extensive recce, and sets. “Half of our energy would go in waiting for the right light, and in India usually it is impossible. People’s schedules are locked. Clouds or no clouds, you have to shoot. Nobody allows that whole day 200 people have to wait for one small shot for 30 seconds. Sohum allowed it. And here we are now,” Barve says, over phone. Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar, whose austere yet stylised lens captures the poetry of the moorlands of Maharashtra, remembers it as the “most intense experience of his life.”
Barve was fighting his own demons — bankruptcy, alcohol, drug addiction. A dyslexic who couldn’t continue his studies after 10th grade in school, and unable to express himself completely in a film script, he created a 6oo-page gloomy, whacked-out graphic novel of a storyboard, complete with shot break-ups, camera angles, VFX and Frames Per Second specifications, and scribbled notes in Marathi, in 2009 (Barve was an animator before). The storyboard laid the foundation for the visual template of the film. In 2011, when Tumbbad was in a limbo, he lost his closest companion and support system, his mother. A professional dancer, she had initiated his film schooling by introducing a 14-year-old Barve to the films of Bergman and Tarkovsky, took care of everything since his father, the journalist and writer Anil Barve, passed away early due to alcoholism. The father figure, or the lack of it, is an important element in the life of Vinayak — the protagonist of Tumbbad, who ends up imbibing the same qualities that he despises in his father. Like the Raos shown in the film, he is a Konkanastha Brahmin himself who grew up listening to scary stories set in the community from his grandmother. “In many ways, I am Vinayak,” says Barve.
The father figure, or the lack of it, is an important element in the life of Vinayak — the protagonist of Tumbbad, who ends up imbibing the same qualities that he despises in his father. Like the Raos shown in the film, he is a Konkanastha Brahmin himself who grew up listening to scary stories set in the community from his grandmother. “In many ways, I am Vinayak,” says Barve.
Vinayak has fascinating contradictions as a hero. All he cares about is the fortune he is going to make from the gold coins; he wears his greed like a badge of cool — ‘Yehi toh ek gun hai mujh mein,’ he proclaims, at one point. And yet there is something existential about his quest. Shah plays the physically intimidating Vinayak with a loutish charm. While playing the character he had in the back of his mind the anti-establishment hero of the 70s Hindi film; whether it is the feudal exploitation of the Lord or the Indian government, who is soon going to take over the village after independence, Vinayak wants to be a man all his own. “I’ve grown up in the small town watching larger-than-life heroes, big emotions… I found those qualities in Tumbbad. I’m a very massy audience,” says Shah.
The final film has evolved a lot from Barve’s original idea of, as co-director Adesh Prasad put, “an atmospheric but distant piece in which the characters didn’t have names, and we weren’t allowed to get into their heads.” It wasn’t supposed to have any music, and it went through several round of rewrites (writing credits include Barve, Prasad, Gandhi and Mitesh Shah). Watching the film, it’s hard to imagine it without the score, which greatly enhances the flow, directing the audience’s emotions in the right places. It was Prasad’s idea, who got video game composer Jesper Kyd (Assassin’s Creed, Hitman) to score for the film (one of the references Prasad gave Kyd was Subhash Ghai’s Ram-Lakhan). The result, I’m happy to report, is a film that’s enjoyable as an accessible, simple story that follows the beats of mainstream cinema and is also moody and crazy. The film is aiming to reach a wide audience, and it’s getting a decent number of screens — about 800 — thanks to the entry of director-producer Aanand L Rai as the “presenter.”
Tumbbad also gives us something that we rarely get in Indian movies: rich, immersive world-building. The hell hole into which Vinayak descends to hunt for gold resembles more a living organism than the bottom of a well; in the film’s thematic design, it is the Goddess’s womb which is the earth itself (Production Design is by Nitin Zihani Choudhary and Rakesh Yadav). It made me think of the abandoned spaceship in Alien (1979), designed by iconic Swiss artist HR Giger who with his influential creations for film, elevated monster design to high-art, and which the director Ridley Scott had described as something “which has been grown, rather than built.” In Tumbbad, precise, fine details hint at a bigger world beyond the story we see on screen. Raghav Brahmin, the moneylender’s black pet cat wears a tilak, just like his master. Could the painting in the Lord’s room mean that all the sons of the Rao family are not only like each other, but when they are of a certain age, also look like each other? The real devil, in Tumbbad, is in the detail.
Watch the trailer of Tumbbad: