When Tumbbad, the genre-bending 2018 film by Rahi Anil Barve, was first taking shape, the Goddess’s womb — where the film’s protagonist Vinayak (Sohum Shah) often finds himself to satiate his relentless greed for wealth — was imagined simply as walls with unadorned black space. It wasn’t until the makers (Barve along with creative director Anand Gandhi and co-director Adesh Prasad), wrapped up the shoot that they returned to the storyboard. They decided in favour of a reshoot that would show the womb as a hellhole of a labyrinth that hides many dark baits and secrets within. The way they designed and picturized the space this time — which is what is in the film — the womb feels chillingly alive and gory, with a slimy texture and pulsating fleshy walls. This sequence realises Tumbbad’s scale and ambition of a film, which were far beyond what you’d expect from an indie film made on a budget of approximately Rs. 8 crore.
For the longest time, genres like science fiction and fantasy have remained in the privileged realms of big-budgeted, studio productions. Yet away from the mainstream, some independent filmmakers have found ways to build fantastical universes without relying on astronomical budgets. In Cargo (2020), director Arati Kadav explores a futuristic universe in which humans and demons have signed a peace treaty. The film is as indie as it gets and one of the reasons Kadav was able to realise her vision was that she and her team got permission to use a shooting floor at Whistling Woods International for a couple of weeks. Kadav made optimal use of the space to create the Pushpak 634A, a futuristic space station, and other domains. “We were very aware of its graphics requirements while writing the script itself, and a VFX person was always involved in the making, right from the pre-production stage,” said Kadav. “Also, I consciously decided to keep the VFX to a minimum, mostly using it to visualise the exterior of the jellyfish-like, floating spaceship. Even for that, I had earlier made up my mind to create miniatures if everything else failed.” Kadav chose to keep a retro feel to the visual design of the spaceship, which is at the core of her narrative. The equipment looked old-fashioned, with retro-style buttons and knobs. The healing machine used by Prahastha (Vikrant Massey) was designed to look like an old vacuum cleaner. There was also a deliberate metallic feel to the overall design, bringing a vintage aesthetic to this futuristic universe.
While Bollywood’s most recent mainstream fantasy adventure Brahmastra is quite obviously inspired by Hollywood films, our indie fantasies are rooted in cultural references that are distinctively Indian. In its opening credits, Tumbbad mentions author Narayan Dharap and his horror short stories as inspiration. Kadav said a lot of her flights of fantasy are rooted in the Indian stories she encountered as a child. “I grew up reading a lot of Amar Chitra Katha, and later on explored a lot of eastern sci-fi, not to mention the consumption of our grandmothers’ bedtime stories which had so much fantasy, which I felt could be told and I wasn't seeing anywhere in our films or shows,” she said. “Our mythology is so rich, but our generation never managed to retell them in a manner that’s captivating for the current audience. I felt very strongly a need to focus on this genre in my stories.”
Tumbbad did something similar while infusing new life into the long-dormant genre of Indian horror. In many ways, it looked like a well-mounted fantasy period film. There was extensive use of prosthetics, a 360-degree set to recreate an early 19th-century village market and the demonic figure of Hastar was created using VFX. One of the many striking sequences in the film is when we realise the protagonist’s grandmother is alive despite having been buried underground. Production designers Rakesh Yadav and Nitin Zihani Chaudhary figured out a device that would operate from a distance and create the illusion of the grandmother’s beating heart. Huge slabs of moss and grass were brought in from Mahabaleshwar and plastered over the walls of the Tumbbad ruins. Since the story spans over three generations, the makers also had the pressure of getting the detailing right for each of the eras, from the drapes in a brothel to the gradual rusting of Vinayak’s jeep. Locations were found in the interiors of Maharashtra, far removed from any modern buildings. The makers chose to wait for the monsoons every year for three years (from 2012 to 2014) to shoot those ambient, cloudy skies instead of relying on visual effects. There is a timeless quality to these moody frames (shot by cinematographer Pankaj Kumar) which lend a distinctive twilight gloom to Tumbbad.
Another film that made a fascinating attempt at world-building is Anvita Dutt’s Bulbbul (2020). Set in the early 20th century, in aristocratic Bengal, Bulbbul marries realism and fantasy by building on folklore surrounding witches to tell a feminist fable. Dutt used the period setting to step away from realism. Shot by Siddharth Diwan, the film uses colour to lend a hint of surrealism to the scenes, like the blood-red moon that glowers down at the mansion where much of the story unfolds.
While the forest sequences were shot on the outskirts of Mumbai, much of Bulbbul was shot at Rajbari Bawali, a lavish heritage hotel situated 60 kilometres from Kolkata. In what turned out to be an unexpected bit of symbolism, the mansion has only one narrow gate, which felt like a telling and poetic detail for Dutt’s tale about patriarchy, oppression, and the constrained conditions in which women live despite the grandest of settings.
At the core of all these films is a fable-like quality, which allows the filmmakers to explore the present but with subtlety and artistry. Cargo seems whimsical but urges the viewer to rethink the idea of a demon while exploring how we respond to death. Tumbbad, with its gold-carrying demons, is a morality tale about greed. Bulbbul, with its elegance and sensuality, looks at the repression of women. “At the base of it, sci-fi and fantasy always need to have a strong philosophy. And it is almost always a better way to talk about things that continue to affect us and matter in our lives,” said Kadav. In times like these, when direct statements are becoming increasingly difficult to articulate, perhaps the filter of these indie fantasies is just what we need.